Alpha Fetoprotein [AFP] is a tumor marker. It can be used to help detect and diagnose several different types of cancer, including liver, ovarian, and testicular cancer. The AFP blood test is also used to help monitor people with known liver conditions such as chronic hepatitis and cirrhosis.
Imaging studies are often ordered with the Alpha Fetoprotein test to determine if there is a cancer and what stage it may currently be. In people with a known health condition, the AFP blood test can also help monitor a patient’s response to a treatment plan. In certain individuals, it may be routinely ordered as to monitor for a recurrence of cancer.
When Is the Alpha Fetoprotein Blood Test Ordered?
A medical provider will typically order the AFP blood test when cancer is suspected for some reason. If a lump is felt in the abdominal area during a physical examination, for example, this test would be ordered with imaging tests to detect a potential tumor.
It may also be ordered to evaluate risk factors for individuals who are suffering from chronic liver disease. It can also be used to test the effectiveness of a treatment plan for certain types of carcinomas and be used to monitor for their recurrence.
AFP exists in several different variants, so the blood test that is typically ordered may also be referred to as a “total Alpha Fetoprotein blood test.” A common variant is called AFP-L3 and increased levels of this variant that are detectable may place a person at a higher risk for a more aggressive cancer. The AFP-L3 blood test is more common outside of the United States.
What Do My Test Results Mean?
When the Alpha Fetoprotein blood test comes back with an indication of higher levels, then this may indicate the presence of cancer. The most common type of cancer detected by the AFP blood test is liver cancer, but not every cancer produces higher levels of AFP. Stomach, lung, colon, and breast cancers will sometimes produce high AFP levels as well, but this is a rare blood test to have ordered for those specific diseases.
It is important to note that AFP levels can sometimes be misleading. If they are not elevated before a treatment plan is initiated, then the ability for this test to provide ongoing results may not have medical value. A sharp increase in AFP levels is more important to discover than decreases that are tracked over time.
When the AFP test is being used as a screening tool, however, an increased concentration of AFP levels after a cancer has been sent into remission can indicate a recurrence. It can also indicate the presence of hepatitis or the development of cirrhosis.
Significant elevations of Alpha Fetoprotein that are detected, but when no cancer is present, indicate that an individual is at a higher risk of developing cancer in the next 12-24 months. This is especially the case in regards to certain carcinomas. Levels can fluctuate, however, so medical providers will generally look at a range of test results before coming to any specific conclusions.
Here’s What You Need To Know
It is possible for an individual to have an increase level of Alpha Fetoprotein that is detectable on the blood test, but never develop cancer because of it. This blood test is an indicator test. It is not used for diagnostic purposes. Medical providers use this information in conjunction with other information from a person’s medical history, along with a complete physical examination, to determine what bothersome signs and symptoms actually mean.
AFP levels are also known to increase when the liver receives trauma. Some people have livers that are more sensitive to injury than others and this can sometimes create results that would lead to a false positive. On the other end of the spectrum, not every cancer produces AFP, so a negative result on this blood test does not exclude the possibility that a cancer does exist.
Women who are pregnant will also have naturally high levels of AFP. This is because AFP is produced by a fetus. Women who have high levels of AFP will also generally be given a pregnancy test to exclude this as an explanation for their higher-than-normal levels.
The Alpha Fetoprotein blood test results explained here are intended to help serve as a guideline for your next conversation with a medical professional. Only a doctor can diagnose the reasons behind an increased level of AFP. If you feel an unusual lump, have ongoing fatigue, unexplained weight loss, or other common symptoms that are associated with cancer, then schedule an appointment with your provider right away.