Biomarker blog

Personalized Colon Cancer Treatment Starts with Biomarker Testing

  • Ask your oncologist about it.

    If you’ve been diagnosed with colorectal cancer, you will likely have a lot of questions. You might wonder which treatments will work best for you and how your cancer treatment can be individualized.

    Biomarker testing may offer answers — but some patients don’t realize it’s an option. Vanessa B. Wookey, MD, a medical oncologist who specializes in gastrointestinal cancers at Fox Chase Cancer Center, is working to change that. 

    Individual answers

    Biomarkers are proteins found in tumor cells, such as tumors caused by colorectal cancer. Biomarker testing — sometimes called molecular profiling or next-generation sequencing — uncovers genetic changes (mutations) in the cells of a tumor

    “When we’re looking at these biomarkers, we’re actually testing the genetics of the tumor itself,” Dr. Wookey explains. 

    Biomarker testing doesn’t typically require additional procedures for the patient. Instead, it’s performed on some of the tissue samples that were taken during a patient’s biopsy. But a blood test may be used if that’s not an option.

    Testing for biomarkers can offer information about a person’s cancer that might affect their treatment options. 

    “It helps guide our therapies,” Dr. Wookey says. “It helps us find the most effective treatments for each patient’s cancer. So it really is a personalized medicine approach.”

    That’s particularly true if you have stage 4 metastatic colorectal cancer (cancer that spreads beyond the colon or rectum).

    If you have stage 4 colorectal cancer, biomarker can testing can help you choose the most effective treatment — and that can lead to better outcomes for patients. 

    For example, colorectal cancer is often treated with chemotherapy. But biomarker testing could show that you have a type of colorectal cancer that responds better to immunotherapy (which uses your own immune system to destroy cancer cells) or to targeted therapies (drugs that target specific molecules that help the cancer grow). 

    “If we treat according to these biomarkers, patients live longer and better,” says Dr. Wookey.

    Some biomarker test results could also show if a person with colorectal cancer is eligible for a clinical trial

    Biomarker testing can offer answers at earlier stages, too. For example, it can reveal whether patients with colorectal cancer at any stage may have Lynch syndrome. That’s an inherited form of colorectal cancer, and knowing if you have it may be important to you and your family.

    Ask your doctor these questions:

    1. Do I qualify for biomarker testing?

    2. What is my status, and how does my treatment change after testing is done?

    3. Are there clinical trials for me?

    4. What is germline testing, and do I need it?

    Some patients will need additional testing to see if they were born with an increased risk of cancer or if their family members are at risk; this is called germline testing. Patients should also ask their doctor if germline testing is recommended. 

    Ask about biomarker testing

    If you’ve been diagnosed with colorectal cancer, ask your oncologist if you have had biomarker testing, Dr. Wookey says. They can help you understand the results and how they might affect your care. 

    If you would like to learn more about colorectal cancer care at Fox Chase, call 888-FOX-CHASE (888-975-7850), or request an appointment online