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Guide to the AFP Tumor Markers Test

written by: R. Elizabeth C. Kitchen•edited by: Emma Lloyd•updated: 9/16/2010

Has your doctor recommended the AFP tumor markers test? If so, read on to learn all you need to know about this test.

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    Tumor markers are a group of hormones, receptors, proteins, enzymes, and other cellular products produced in amounts that are higher than normal by malignant cells. This AFP tumor markers test is performed to monitor and assist in the diagnosis of certain liver, ovarian, and testicular cancers. This blood test is formally known as the alpha-fetoprotein-L3 percent, or just the alpha-fetoprotein total.

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    How this Test is Used

    This test is used to assist in the diagnosis and detection of liver cancer, ovarian cancer, and testicular cancer. It is also often ordered to keep an eye on patient's with chronic liver diseases, such as chronic hepatitis B or cirrhosis due to their heightened risk of developing liver cancer throughout their lifetime. This test may be performed along with certain diagnostic imaging studies to try and look for liver cancer when it is in the earliest stages where it is most treatable. If a patient has been diagnosed with an AFP-producing cancer, such as hepatocellular carcinoma, this blood test can be done periodically to help keep an eye on how a patient is responding to treatment, and to look for cancer recurrence.

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    When is it Ordered?

    The AFP tumor marker test may be ordered by a doctor for the following reasons:

    • To keep an eye on a chronic liver disease patient for the development of hepatocellular carcinoma or other types of liver cancer
    • Monitoring for a recurrence of cancer
    • When it is suspected that a patient has certain ovarian or testicular cancer or liver cancer
    • To determine how effective treatment is working for a patient for a patient with diagnosed ovarian, testicular, or liver cancer
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    Preparation and Procedure

    Most patients will not need to do any preparation for this blood test. This will be determined on an individual basis and if an individual patient does need to do something to prepare, their doctor will provide them with the instructions to do so.

    In order to obtain the blood sample necessary for this test, venipuncture is done. A nurse, phlebotomist, or other health care provider will use a hollow needle and will carefully insert it into a vein. The patient's blood will then collect into a special vacuum-sealed vial, like a vacutainer. The sample is then sent off to a lab for the testing.

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    What do the Results Mean?

    If AFP levels in the blood are increased, it may indicate:

    • Liver cancer
    • A testicular germ cell tumor
    • Ovarian cancer
    • Stomach cancer
    • Lung cancer
    • Lymphoma
    • Colon cancer
    • Breast cancer
    • Hepatitis
    • Cirrhosis

    If the levels of AFP are normal, the patient's doctor will speak to them to assess whether the patient needs to undergo any further diagnostic testing, or to determine if this test needs to be repeated at a later date.

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    Resources

    Lab Tests Online. (2009). AFP Tumor Markers. Retrieved on September 8, 2010 from Lab Tests Online: http://www.labtestsonline.org/understanding/analytes/afp_tumor/sample.html

    Encyclopedia of Surgery. (2010). Tumor Marker Tests. Retrieved on September 8, 2010 from the Encyclopedia of Surgery: http://www.surgeryencyclopedia.com/St-Wr/Tumor-Marker-Tests.html