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What is it?

  • Alpha-fetoprotein (al-fa-FETO-pro-teen) can be found with a blood test and is also called AFP. AFP is an important fetal (FEE-tal) serum protein that disappears soon after birth. It returns in pregnant women. It can also appear as a tumor marker in other adults. Tumor markers are blood tests used to find different kinds of cancers.
  • AFP is also one of the main embryonic (em-bree-ON-ic) proteins. Embryonic means the early stages of the growth of a baby. This is the time from conception (cun-SEP-shun) to about the end of the second month of pregnancy. From the third month until birth, the developing embryo is called fetus (FEE-tus) or fetal.

Why do I need it?

  • In adults, AFP is helpful to tell apart primary hepatoma (hep-uh-TOE-mah) from benign (be-NINE) liver diseases. Hepatoma is liver cell cancer. Benign refers to conditions that are not cancer. High levels of AFP may point to some of the following conditions:
    • Liver cell cancer.
    • Ovarian (o-VAIR-e-un) cancer.
    • Pancreatic (pan-kree-AT-ik) cancer.
    • Stomach cancer.
    • Testicular (tes-TIK-u-ler) cancer.
  • During pregnancy, AFP tests may be done to find or watch defects in the developing fetus. Higher than normal AFP levels in the blood of the mother may mean:
    • The baby's brain is not developing (neural tube defects).
    • The baby may have physical defects such as dwarfism (DWORF-izm).
    • The baby's intestines are outside the abdomen (belly).
    • The baby may have some heart problems.
    • The baby's spine is not developing correctly.
  • A lower than normal level of AFP may mean the fetus has Down syndrome. Ask your caregiver to explain the different conditions your baby may have if the results of this test are not normal.

How do I get ready for the test?

Your caregiver will tell you when to have your blood test done. The blood test may be done before or after eating.

How is the specimen collected?

A caregiver will put a wide rubber strap around your arm and tighten it. Your skin will be cleaned with alcohol. A small needle attached to a special test tube will be put into a vein in your arm or hand. The tube has suction to pull the blood into it. When the tube is full, the rubber strap, needle and tube are removed. The caregiver will press a piece of cotton where the needle was removed. You may be asked to hold the cotton on the site for a few minutes to help stop the bleeding. Tape may then be put over the cotton on your arm.

What do I do after the test?

You may remove the tape and cotton in about 20 to 30 minutes. Call your caregiver to get the results of your test. Your caregiver will explain what your test results mean for you. Follow the instructions of your caregiver.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. To help with this plan, you must learn about your lab tests. You can then discuss the results with your caregivers. Work with them to decide what care may be used to treat you. You always have the right to refuse treatment.

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.