Know Your Tumor - Stand Up To Cancer

Get To Know Your Tumor and Biomarkers

If you or a loved one has recently been diagnosed with cancer, you have probably had to familiarize yourself with a lot of new words, ideas, and challenges. One concept that may be new is the “cancer biomarker.” Below, Stand Up To Cancer will help you understand what a biomarker is, what it is used for, and how knowing your cancer’s biomarkers may help you and your doctor make more informed decisions about your treatment plan.

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Every person has a unique pattern of biomarkers, many of which have been monitored throughout our lives. Measurements made during a routine doctor’s visit, such as blood pressure or body weight, are simple examples. Other biomarkers can be based on laboratory tests of blood, urine, or tissues. Broadly speaking, biomarkers are characteristics of the body that can be measured or detected to better understand your diagnosis, potentially predict how it will progress, and/or potentially help determine the best treatment.

Cancer biomarkers are more precise than the measurements taken during a routine visit with your doctor. Cancer cells were originally healthy cells, so your doctor needs ways to spot the disease in a sea of normal cells and tissues. Biomarkers may include genes, proteins, and other substances that provide information about your cancer. Some biomarkers can even help us understand how to treat specific forms of cancer by indicating what treatments that particular cancer may be sensitive or resistant to.


What Are Biomarkers Used For?

Cancer biomarkers can be used in a variety of ways: 

Biomarkers and Cancer Treatments

There are more than 200 types of cancer. Each one is treated differently according to various factors such as the type of cancer, stage of the disease, and specific genetic mutations associated with the cancer. While surgery and radiation are often used, they are usually combined with other treatments such as chemotherapy, targeted therapies, or immunotherapy.

Cancer biomarkers can help your medical team determine the most effective treatments for you. Sometimes, the presence of a biomarker will indicate that a therapy targeted at a particular weakness in the tumor may be effective. For example, Herceptin (trastuzumab) is often prescribed for breast cancers carrying HER2 gene mutations.

In other cases, combinations of biomarkers will help your doctor suggest a treatment plan. There are many different biomarker tests; some are specific to one cancer type while others can be used across a variety of cancers. Some biomarker tests look for gene changes in cancer cells, or they detect key proteins. Some tests look at a single biomarker while others look for a pattern among multiple biomarkers. These tests are often done using tumor samples removed during a biopsy or surgery, but tests using samples of blood or other bodily fluids are becoming more common.

Knowing your cancer biomarkers will help you and your doctor select treatments that specifically target your cancer and help you avoid treatments that may not be effective. In addition, you may want to consider participating in a clinical trial that is focused on developing new treatments targeting one or more of your cancer biomarkers.

How Can I Learn More About My Biomarkers?

Cancer care continues to improve as we learn more about the biology of cancer and the ways in which our bodies support tumor growth. This is good news for patients, as new, more effective treatments are being developed with less severe side effects.

It is important to talk to your doctor about biomarker tests that might be right for you. Before having this conversation, you may want to think of some questions. Stand Up To Cancer has developed some points to think about when talking to your doctor, and the National Cancer Institute has more information about biomarker tests and a list of common cancer biomarkers used today. Also, the American Society of Clinical Oncology maintains a comprehensive resource for people with cancer, their families, and caregivers to help with your cancer journey.

Mirati Therapeutics also provides various lung cancer resources with a biomarkers testing quiz and a resources guide, which can be found on their website.


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