Absolute Neutrophil Count (ANC) for Cancer Treatment

Chemotherapy: drug injected into catheter in hand
Simon Fraser/Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Neutrophils are white blood cells that are important in fighting infection. ANC stands for the absolute neutrophil count, and neutrophil counts may be lower than normal for any number of reasons, including both diseases and treatments. A drop in the ANC may occur as a result of cancer chemotherapy, for instance.

A healthy person has an ANC between 2,500 and 6,000. Your absolute neutrophil count can be calculated using a common blood test called the complete blood count, or CBC. The CBC gives your doctor all of your numbers for red blood cells, white blood cells (WBCs), and platelets — the small bits of cellular material that help to control bleeding. The ANC is found by multiplying the total white blood cell count by the percent that are neutrophils.

Example Calculation: If your total WBC count is 8,000 leukocytes and 50 percent of the WBCs are neutrophils, then your ANC is 4,000 neutrophils because 8,000 × 0.50 = 4,000.

Often, the ANC will be calculated automatically as part of the lab report. If not, you may have instances where neutrophils are reported in two separate buckets: "bands" and "segs." These would be added together, and it would be kind of like adding together the number of calves and adults to get a headcount for cattle — that is, "bands" are the more immature form of segmented neutrophils or segs.

More on the ANC

It’s possible that your total WBC count is normal but your neutrophil count is low. However, since neutrophils normally have the largest piece of the pie, in terms of total white blood cells, the WBC count is usually also low when the neutrophil count is low.

Neutrophils are WBCs that are numerous in the bloodstream of healthy individuals and important in fighting infection. They are actually the most important WBC in fighting infection. They typically constitute more than 50 percent of your total WBCs when you are healthy. The presence of abnormally small numbers of neutrophils in the circulating blood is called neutropenia. There are differing degrees of neutropenia, depending on how low your ANC goes.

According to the American Cancer Society, a healthy person has an ANC between 2,500 and 6,000. When the ANC drops below 1,000, there may be some increased risk of infection, so your doctor will keep an eye on your counts very closely; you are at a much greater risk of infection when the ANC is below 500.

The bone marrow normally makes your blood cells, including neutrophils. Life-saving cancer therapies including chemotherapy and radiation may target rapidly growing cells and adversely impact the production of neutrophils—and so a drop in ANC is sometimes an expected side effect. In some cases, when ANC is expected to become low, or when it is already low, antibiotics and/or growth factors—medicines that help boost your neutrophil production—may be administered.

Symptoms

Simply having a low white blood cell count or even a low absolute neutrophil count does not necessarily produce any noticeable symptoms. That is why it is so important to be alert to the possibility of symptoms of infection when your neutrophils are depleted. Unfortunately, as the ANC gets lower, many of these signs may not be prominent when an infection starts.

Here are some of the signs and symptoms of infection that you can be vigilant about:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Trouble breathing
  • Diarrhea
  • Pain

If there is a central venous access device (central line or port), check for redness, swelling, pain or pus at the site, where the tube enters the body. A person with a low ANC might not have redness or pus, but could still have an infection.

If your ANC goes down to 1,000 or lower and you have a fever, many clinicians take the leap of faith that there is an infection, and antibiotic treatment is usually started immediately, often before the infection's source has ever been identified. Then it becomes a process of narrowing down the likely suspects from among the possible infectious pathogens while continuing to treat with the most inclusive therapies.

As certain clues emerge, doctors may be able to determine the exact site and cause of the infection and which pathogens may be involved. In this way, they can select the treatment that’s most likely to work—and this may mean that the antibiotic that was given at first will be switched to one that is more tailor-made for the offending bug(s).

Causes

Depression of WBCs, including specifically the neutrophils, is the toxicity of many different anti-cancer therapies. A low ANC can also be a manifestation or sign of the underlying disease, as is the case in some types of blood cancer.

Additionally, a low ANC may occur in the treatment of various other chronic illnesses, such as autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis. For instance, one of the treatments for rheumatoid arthritis, tocilizumab, blocks a cell signal known as IL-6 and has been linked to lower ANCs, though decreases in neutrophil counts in patients taking tocilizumab do not appear to be associated with serious infections and are addressed by steps taken to lower the risk of infection.

Finally, very rarely, it is possible for people can have something called severe chronic primary neutropenia. This disorder is not well understood, but it has a female predominance, and it appears that despite low ANC, severe infections are rare, and patients have an overall favorable outcome. 

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Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Cancer Society. Low white blood cell (neutrophil) counts and the risk of infection. February 10, 2017.

  2. American Cancer Society. Understanding your lab test results. Updated April 22, 2016.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What you need to know: neutropenia and risk for infection.

  4. Moots RJ, Sebba A, Rigby W, et al. Effect of tocilizumab on neutrophils in adult patients with rheumatoid arthritis: pooled analysis of data from phase 3 and 4 clinical trials. Rheumatology (Oxford). 2017;56(4):541-549. doi:10.1093/rheumatology/kew370

  5. Dale DC, Bolyard AA. An update on the diagnosis and treatment of chronic idiopathic neutropenia. Curr Opin Hematol. 2017;24(1):46-53. doi:10.1097/MOH.0000000000000305

Additional Reading

  • Crawford J, Armitage J, Balducci L, et al. Myeloid growth factors. J Natl Compr Canc Netw. 2013;11(10):1266-90. doi:10.6004/jnccn.2013.0148