A relatively new arrival on the cancer scene is a test called the circulating cancer cell test. Many of the major labs and hospital cancer cells are able to run the test, including Quest Diagnostics, which has named this test as the Cell Search test. Just like the PSA test, it is a blood test. The laboratory simply draws a tube of blood which is run through a machine called a flow cytometer, after which cells that contain a cancer-related proteins are detected and counted.

The circulating cancer cell test has not been shown to be able to detect cancer earlier than standard methods, but it has been shown to be able to monitor the response of known cancers to treatments.

The original research with the circulating cancer cell test was done on women with advanced breast cancer who were receiving chemotherapy. It was found that the women who had better responses to their treatments also had lower levels of circulating cancer cell counts. Conversely, those women who were not responding to treatment did not have a lower number of circulating cells in their blood.

The beauty of the test is that it provides a way reduce the time we need to spend on receiving inactive, unsuccessful, and very expensive types of treatments that may be producing lots of side effects but gives no benefit. Using this test appropriately can save money, and save our having to experience side effects, while increasing the probability of good control of our disease.

Finally, these studies have been extended to include prostate cancer and lung cancer. Men, after a primary treatment now have an additional tool to monitor the possibility of a recurrence. Those of recurrent disease and us who do have advanced disease can more quickly determine if a treatment is helping. If not, we can move on and fid an effective treatment instead of wasting time, resources and struggling with negative side effects for naught.

In prior posts, I have discussed personalized cancer care, which will be the wave of the future. The use of the circulating cancer cell test is the beginning of this process. Over time, we will see other innovative tests and treatments that will extend beyond the current cookie cutter style of cancer treatment methods. Physicians now can begin the process of personalizing cancer care plans for us. Those cancer patients whose circulating cancer cell numbers rise can move on to different treatments that will be more effective. Those of us who’s circulating cancer cell numbers are lowered after treatments can be more confident that we are controlling our disease.

Unless you ask for the test it will not be offered. So ask for it.

Joel T Nowak MA, MSW