Role of serum carcinoembryonic antigen in the detection of colorectal cancer before and after surgical resection

World J Gastroenterol. 2012 May 7;18(17):2121-6. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v18.i17.2121.


Aim: To determine whether serum levels of carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) correlate with the presence of primary colorectal cancer (CRC), and/or recurrent CRC following radical resection.

Methods: A total of 413 patients with CRC underwent radical surgery between January 1998 and December 2002 in our department and were enrolled in this study. The median follow-up period was 69 mo (range, 3-118 mo), and CRC recurrence was experienced by 90/413 (21.8%) patients. Serum levels of CEA were assayed preoperatively, and using a cutoff value of 5 ng/mL, patients were divided into two groups, those with normal serum CEA levels (e.g., ≤ 5 ng/mL) and those with elevated CEA levels (> 5 ng/mL).

Results: The overall sensitivity of CEA for the detection of primary CRC was 37.0%. The sensitivity of CEA according to stage, was 21.4%, 38.9%, and 41.7% for stages I-III, respectively. Moreover, for stage II and stage III cases, the 5-year disease-free survival rates were reduced for patients with elevated preoperative serum CEA levels (P < 0.05). The overall sensitivity of CEA for detecting recurrent CRC was 54.4%, and sensitivity rates of 36.6%, 66.7%, and 75.0% were associated with cases of local recurrence, single metastasis, and multiple metastases, respectively. In patients with normal serum levels of CEA preoperatively, the sensitivity of CEA for detecting recurrence was reduced compared with patients having a history of elevated CEA prior to radical resection (32.6% vs 77.3%, respectively, P < 0.05).

Conclusion: CRC patients with normal serum CEA levels prior to resection maintained these levels during CRC recurrence, especially in cases of local recurrence vs cases of metastasis.

Keywords: Carcinoembryonic antigen; Colorectal cancer; Recurrence.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Carcinoembryonic Antigen / blood*
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / blood
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / pathology
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / surgery
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasm Staging
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Sensitivity and Specificity


  • Carcinoembryonic Antigen