Effectiveness of Screening for Cancer with Blood Tests

Cancer Statistics

Cancer is a term used to identify a medical condition in which abnormal cells start to multiple in the body and destroy healthy cells.  There are over one hundred different types of cancer.  Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States and accounts for one out of every four deaths.  The American Cancer Society projects that there will be over one and a half million new cases of cancer and over a half million cancer-related deaths in the year 2014.  There are currently over fourteen million Americans who have survived a battle with cancer.  The ability to survive cancer is affected by many different variables, including what type of treatments are available and at what stage the cancer is first detected.

Early Detection

Early detection of cancer, before any outward symptoms appear, is quite important in cancer treatment.  Early detection leads to a better prognosis and often requires less extensive treatment than cancer that is not detected until later in its development.  Cancer screenings that lead to early detection have been shown to decrease the mortality rate of many different kinds of cancer.  This is especially true for cancers that are brought about by heavy smoking or drinking. Colorectal and cervical cancer screening may actually aid in the prevention of cancer by removing pre-cancerous lesions.

Blood Tests for Cancer

Cancer blood tests are the quickest, easiest, and least expensive way to start screening for cancer.  With the exception of blood cancer, a blood test alone is not enough to make a diagnosis of cancer.  In most cases a diagnosis is not made until potentially cancerous cells have been biopsied, examined, and tested.  The benefit of blood tests is that they are less invasive than other tests and can offer insight into potential problems in many different areas of the body.  A blood test is the first step in the early detection of cancer.  Below are listed several types of blood tests that can be used to screen for cancer.

  • Tumor Marker Blood Tests

When tumor cells start to form in the body they release specific chemicals into the blood that are called tumor markers that can be identified in a blood test.  If an individual has an abnormally elevated level of tumor markers in the blood, the doctor would likely start to look more closely for a cause of the elevated count, based on the type of marker found.  Different types of cancers can produce different tumor markers.  Also, tumor markers are not always produced in response to cancerous cells and may be produced by other non-cancerous conditions.

  • Complete Blood Count (CBC) Blood Test

The CBC blood test is used to measure the levels of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets which make up one’s blood.  Blood cancer may be indicated if abnormal cells are found or if one’s level of a certain type of blood cell is either abnormally high or abnormally low.  As with other blood tests, however, an abnormal CBC blood test may be caused by cancer or by other medical conditions.  If cancer is suspected after a CBC blood test, the doctor may order a bone marrow biopsy to aid in the diagnosis of blood cancer.

  • Blood Protein Tests

Blood proteins used in the maintenance of the immune system may either be elevated or depressed in people with certain types of cancer.  The balance of immune system proteins is very important.  If there are too few proteins, the body may not be receiving the protection it needs, and if there are too many proteins the body may start to attack itself.  The level of proteins in the blood is affected by how hard the system is working.  Cancer is likely to create some sort of disruption to one’s immune system.  If the blood test indicates that there might be an underlying medical condition, the patient may need to undergo a bone marrow test.

  • Circulating Tumor Cells Tests

Circulating tumor cells tests are a new type of test being developed to aid in the early detection of cancer.  The test is used to examine a patient’s blood, looking for cancer cells that have broken away from the main cancer site and have found their way into the blood.  Currently, more research is needed to determine what types of cells and what number of cells for which the researchers should be looking.  Also, more research is needed to determine how early into the development of the cancer these cells may first be detected in the blood.

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