Sunday, August 21, 2011

Liver Cancer? Hepatitis C and the Alpha-Fetoprotein (AFP) Blood Test

In my August 12, 2011 post about the results of my recent blood tests, I mentioned the alarmingly elevated level of a new blood test that my doc ordered - the Alpha-Fetoprotein (AFP) test - which is an indicator of liver cancer. When I heard "AFP" I thought of a blood test I took when I was pregnant with both of my children. I've learned that the tests are one and the same.

According to an article from Gastroenterol that was cited on HCV Advocate’s hepatitis blog:
Alfa-fetoprotein (AFP) is a blood test that is used widely to detect abnormalities that may be an indication of the presence of certain types of cancers... In viral hepatitis it is a test used to indicate liver cancer... In people with chronic hepatitis C most providers will generally start monitoring for liver cancer using the AFP test and liver imaging once someone has developed severe fibrosis or cirrhosis.
As I continued my search for information about the AFP test, liver cancer and how to interpret AFP test results for people like me who have Hepatitis C and a cirrhotic liver, I found a web page about hepatic tumors written by D. Montgomery Bissell, MD, for Gastroenterology students at the University of California, San Francisco. He stated the following:
As a surveillance tool, AFP is readily available and inexpensive but has many limitations. Its specificity is poor, particularly in patients with chronic hepatitis C, in whom the value often exceeds normal (in the 5-100 range, presumably on the basis of regenerative activity). False negative results are not infrequent, which is the reason for including basic imaging in routine HCC surveillance. The utility of AFP is largely two-fold: (1) A progressively rising value has much greater specificity than a single test and requires a search for HCC; (2) AFP >500 is assumed to reflect HCC even if imaging is negative, and qualifies for transplant listing. Also, a very high AFP (>1000) suggests vascular invasion and metastasis.
Given this information, my AFP test result of 106, when the normal range is about 0 - 8, isn't something I need to be concerned about today. If the level continues to rise... well, we'll cross that bridge if we ever get to it.

Photo by Franco Giovanella,

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