Medical Definition of Tumor marker, CEA

  • Medical Author:
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Tumor marker, CEA: Carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) is a protein found in many types of cells but associated with tumors and the developing fetus.

CEA is tested in blood. The normal range is <2.5 ng/ml in an adult non-smoker and <5.0 ng/ml in a smoker.

Benign conditions that can increase CEA include smoking, infection, inflammatory bowel disease, pancreatitis, cirrhosis of the liver, and some benign tumors (in the same organs which have cancers with increased CEA). Benign disease does not usually cause a CEA increase over 10 ng/ml.

The main use of CEA is as a tumor marker, especially with intestinal cancer. The most common cancers that elevate CEA are in the colon and rectum. Others: cancer of the pancreas, stomach, breast, lung, and certain types of thyroid and ovarian cancer. Levels over 20 ng/ml before therapy are associated with cancer which has already metastasized (spread).

CEA is useful in monitoring the treatment of CEA-rich tumors. If the CEA is high before treatment, it should fall to normal after successful therapy. A rising CEA level indicates progression or recurrence of the cancer. (Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can themselves cause a rise in CEA due to death of tumor cells and release of CEA into the blood stream but that rise is typically temporary).

"Carcinoembryonic" reflects the fact that CEA is made by some cancers ("carcino-") and by the developing fetus ("-embryonic").

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Last Editorial Review: 1/24/2017

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