Test Overview

The
carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) test measures the amount of this
protein that may appear in the blood of some people
who have certain kinds of cancers, especially cancer of the large intestine (colon and rectal cancer). It may also be present in people with cancer of the
pancreas, breast, ovary, or lung.

CEA is
normally produced during the development of a
fetus. The production of CEA stops before birth, and
it usually is not present in the blood of healthy adults.

Why It Is Done

The carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) test
is used to monitor a person before and during treatment. Along with other tests, this test may be used to see how well a treatment is working. And in some cases, it may be used with other tests to see if the cancer has grown or come back.

How To Prepare

You do not need to do anything before
you have this test.

Talk to your doctor about any concerns you
have regarding the need for the test, its risks, how it will be done, or what
the results will mean. To help you understand the importance of this test, fill
out the
medical test information form (What is a PDF document?).

How It Is Done

The health professional taking a sample
of your blood will:

  • Wrap an elastic band around your upper arm to
    stop the flow of blood. This makes the veins below the band larger so it is
    easier to put a needle into the vein.
  • Clean the needle site with
    alcohol.
  • Put the needle into the vein. More than one needle stick
    may be needed.
  • Attach a tube to the needle to fill it with
    blood.
  • Remove the band from your arm when enough blood is
    collected.
  • Put a gauze pad or cotton ball over the needle site as
    the needle is removed.
  • Put pressure on the site and then put on a bandage.

How It Feels

The blood sample is taken from a vein in
your arm. An elastic band is wrapped around your upper arm. It may feel tight.
You may feel nothing at all from the needle, or you may feel a quick sting or
pinch.

Risks

There is very little chance of a problem from
having blood drawn from a vein.

  • You may get a small bruise at the site. You can
    lower the chance of bruising by keeping pressure on the site for several
    minutes.
  • In rare cases, the vein may become swollen after the
    blood sample is taken. This problem is called phlebitis. A warm compress can be
    used several times a day to treat this.

Results

The carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) test
measures the amount of this
protein that may appear in the blood of some people
who have certain kinds of cancers, especially cancer of the large intestine (colon and rectal cancer). It may also be present in people with cancer of the
pancreas, breast, ovary, or lung.

Results
are usually available in 1 to 3 days.

Normal

The normal values listed here-called a reference range-are just a guide. These ranges vary from lab to lab, and your lab may have a different range for what’s normal. Your lab report should contain the range your lab uses. Also, your doctor will evaluate your results based on your health and other factors. This means that a value that falls outside the normal values listed here may still be normal for you or your lab.

Carcinoembryonic antigenfootnote 1

Normal:

Less than 5 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL) or less than 5 micrograms per liter (mcg/L)

Many conditions can change your CEA levels. Your
doctor will discuss any significant abnormal results with you in relation to
your symptoms and medical history.

Most cancers do not produce
this protein, so your CEA may be normal even though you have cancer.

High values

What Affects the Test

Heavy smoking affects the test
results.

What To Think About

  • The CEA blood test is not reliable for
    diagnosing cancer or as a screening test for early detection of
    cancer.
  • CEA testing is a reliable test for recurrent colon cancer
    if the original cancer produced this protein before treatment.
  • Most
    types of cancer do not produce a high CEA. Having a normal CEA level does not
    mean that you do not have cancer.
  • CEA levels usually return to
    near-normal levels within 6 weeks of starting treatment if cancer treatment is
    successful.
  • Measuring the amount of CEA in other body fluids, such as
    abdominal fluid (peritoneal fluid) or the fluid around the brain and spinal
    cord (cerebrospinal fluid, or CSF), can determine whether
    cancer has spread to that part of the body.
  • Other diseases, such as
    COPD, cirrhosis, and
    Crohn’s disease, may also raise CEA blood levels.
  • CEA levels are usually higher in smokers than in people who do not
    smoke.

References

Citations

  1. Pagana KD, Pagana TJ (2010). Mosby’s Manual of Diagnostic and Laboratory Tests, 4th ed. St. Louis: Mosby Elsevier.

Other Works Consulted

  • Chernecky CC, Berger BJ (2008). Laboratory Tests and Diagnostic Procedures, 5th ed. St. Louis: Saunders.
  • Pagana KD, Pagana TJ (2010). Mosby’s Manual of Diagnostic and Laboratory Tests, 4th ed. St. Louis: Mosby Elsevier.

Credits

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD – Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito, MD – Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Jimmy Ruiz, MD – Hematology, Oncology

Current as ofMay 17, 2017