This article was last reviewed and updated on July 30, 2019.
by Emily Goebel, MD FRCPC
Endocervical adenocarcinoma is a type of cervical cancer.
Most tumours are caused by a virus called human papillomavirus (HPV).
The tumour starts from a pre-cancerous disease called adenocarcinoma in situ (AIS).
The normal cervix
The cervix is part of the female genital tract. It is found at the bottom of the uterus where it forms an opening and a canal into the endometrial cavity of the uterus.
The outer surface of the cervix is lined by two types of cells that form a barrier called the epithelium. The first part of the cervix is called the exocervix and it is lined by squamous cells. The second part of the cervix is called the endocervical canal and it is lined by rectangular shaped cells which connect together to make small structures called glands.
The tissue below the epithelium is called the stroma and is made up of connective tissue and blood vessels.
What is endocervical adenocarcinoma?
Endocervical adenocarcinoma is a type of cervical cancer. The tumour develops in the cervix from the glands normally found in the endocervical canal.
In many cases, endocervical adenocarcinoma develops from pre-cancerous disease called adenocarcinoma in situ (AIS). AIS is different from endocervical adenocarcinoma because in AIS the abnormal cells are seen only in the epithelium of the cervix.
Why is this important? Once cancer cells enter the stroma they are able to spread to other parts of the body such as lymph nodes. The movement of cancer cells from the tumour to a different part of the body is called metastasis.
What causes endocervical adenocarcinoma?
Most tumours are caused by a virus called human papillomavirus (HPV). The virus infects the cells on the surface of the cervix. Overtime, these cells change into cancer cells.
How do pathologists make this diagnosis?
The diagnosis of endocervical adenocarcinoma is usually made after a small sample of tissue is removed from the cervix in a test called a pap smear. The diagnosis can also be made after a larger sample of tissue is removed in a biopsy or resection.
Grade is a word pathologists use to describe the difference between the cancer cells and the normal cells in the endocervical canal. Because the normal cells in the cervix connect together to form glands, adenocarcinoma is divided into 3 grades based on how much of the tumour is made up of glands and how much they look like normal cells:
Well differentiated - The cancer cells mostly form glands, with only a small percentage of the cancer cells growing in a solid pattern. The individual cancer cells also look only mildly abnormal when compared to normal columnar cells.
Moderately differentiated – Some glands are still seen and the cancer cells look different than normal columnar cells.
Poorly differentiated - The cancer cells are growing mostly in a solid pattern with very few glands. The individual cancer cells also look very abnormal when compared to normal columnar cells.
Why is this important? Poorly differentiated tumours are associated with worse prognosis compared to well and moderated differentiated tumours.
This is the size of the tumour, measured in three dimensions. The size of the tumour will only be described in your report after the entire tumour has been removed. The size of the tumour cannot be measured on tissue from a pap smear.
Length - The tumour is measured from top to bottom.
Width - The tumour is measured from side to side.
Why is this important? The size of the tumour is used to determine the tumour stage (see Pathologic stage below).
Extent of disease
Larger samples of tissue are usually sent for pathological examination as a single piece of tissue and the tissue is then divided into multiple sections before being examined under the microscope. Your pathologist will describe the number of pieces (or 'blocks' as they are often called) that show adenocarcinoma or AIS in your report.
Sometimes other tissue samples will be taken to determine if the tumor has spread outside of the cervix.
Why is this important? A tumour that has spread outside of the cervix is associated with worse prognosis and is used to determine the tumour stage (see Pathologic stage below).
Tumour extension describes the distance the cancer cells have traveled from their starting point in the cervix. All tumours start in the cervix however larger tumours can grow to involve the endometrium, vagina, bladder, or rectum.
The soft tissue that surrounds and support the cervix is called the parametrium. This tissue will be carefully examined for cancer cells.
Your pathologist can only determine the tumour extension after the entire tumour has been removed. It will not be described in your report after a pap smear.
Why is this important? Tumour extension into the parametrium or other organs around the cervix is associated with worse prognosis and is used to determine the tumour stage (see Pathologic stage below).
After examining your tissue sample, your pathologist will measure the amount of stromal invasion in two directions:
Depth of invasion - This is the amount of invasion measured from the surface of the tumour to the deepest point of invasion.
Horizontal extent of invasion - This is the amount of invasion measured from one side of the tumour to the other.
The size of stromal invasion is not the same as the tumour size because the tumour size also includes any AIS that may be above the area of invasion. For that reason the size of the tumour may be larger than the size of stromal invasion.
Why is this important? The amount of stromal invasion is used to determine the tumour stage (see Pathologic stage below). In general, less stromal invasion is associated with better prognosis while more invasion is associated with worse prognosis.
Blood moves around the body through long thin tubes called blood vessels. Another type of fluid called lymph which contains waste and immune cells moves around the body through lymphatic channels.
Cancer cells can use blood vessels and lymphatics to travel away from the tumour to other parts of the body. The movement of cancer cells from the tumour to another part of the body is called metastasis.
Before cancer cells can metastasize, they need to enter a blood vessel or lymphatic. This is called lymphovascular invasion.
Why is this important? Lymphovascular invasion increases the risk that cancer cells will be found in a lymph node or a distant part of the body such as the lungs.
A margin is any tissue that has to be cut by the surgeon in order to remove the tumour from your body. Pap smears do not have margins.
If you underwent a surgical procedure to remove the entire tumour from your body, your pathologist will examine the margin closely to make sure there are no cancer cells at the cut edge of the tissue.
The number and type of margins will depend on the type of procedure performed to remove the tumour from your body. Typical margins include:
Endocervical margin - This is where the cervix meets the inside of the uterus.
Ectocervical margin - This is the bottom of the cervix, closest to the vagina.
Deep margin - This is the tissue inside the wall of the cervix.
Radial margin - This is the soft tissue that surrounds the cervix. The radial margin will only be described in your report if you had your entire cervix and uterus removed at the same time.
A margin is considered positive when the cancer cells are seen at the edge of the cut tissue. If AIS is seen at the margin that will also be described in your report.
Why is this important? Finding cancer cells at the margin increases the risk that the tumour will grow back in that location.
Lymph nodes are small immune organs located throughout the body. Cancer cells can travel from the tumour to a lymph node through lymphatic channels located in and around the tumour (see Lymphovascular invasion above). The movement of cancer cells from the tumour to a lymph node is called a metastasis.
Your pathologist will carefully examine all lymph nodes for cancer cells. Lymph nodes that contain cancer cells are often called positive while those that do not contain any cancer cells are called negative. Most reports include the total number of lymph nodes examined and the number, if any, that contain cancer cells.
Lymph nodes on the same side as the tumour are called ipsilateral while those on the opposite side of the tumour are called contralateral.
Lymph nodes examined are usually divided into those found in the pelvis and those found around a large blood vessel in the abdomen called the aorta. The lymph nodes found around the aorta are called para-aortic.
If cancer cells are found in a lymph node, the size of the area involved by cancer will be measured and described in your report.
Isolated tumour cells - The area inside the lymph node with with cancer cells is less than 0.2 millimeters in size.
Micrometastases - The area inside the lymph node with with cancer cells is more than 0.2 millimeters but less than 2 millimeters in size.
Macrometastases - The area inside the lymph node with with cancer cells is more than 2 millimeters in size.
Why is this important? Cancer cells found in a lymph node is associated with a higher risk that the cancer cells will be found in other lymph nodes or in a distant organ such as the lungs. The number of lymph nodes with cancer cells is also used to determine the nodal stage (see Pathologic stage below).
Pathologic stage (pTNM)
The pathologic stage for endocervical adenocarcinoma of the cervix is based on the TNM staging system, an internationally recognized system originally created by the American Joint Committee on Cancer.
This system uses information about the primary tumour (T), lymph nodes (N), and distant metastatic disease (M) to determine the complete pathologic stage (pTNM). Your pathologist will examine the tissue submitted and give each part a number. In general, a higher number means more advanced disease and worse prognosis.
The pathologic stage is usually only included in your report after the entire tumour has been removed. It is not included in the report after a small sample of tissue has been removed in a biopsy or fine needle aspiration.
Tumour stage (pT) for endocervical adenocarcinoma
T1a - Tumours in this category were found only after the tissue was examined under the microscope. These tumours also have a depth of invasion that is 5 millimeters or less AND and a horizontal spread that is 7 millimeters or less (see Stromal invasion above).
T1b - The tumour was seen by your doctor during your physical examination OR the depth of invasion is greater than 5 millimeters OR the horizontal spread greater than 7 millimeters.
T2a - The tumour extends outside of the uterus but not into the parametrium (see Tumour extension above).
T2b - The tumour extends into the parametrium.
T3a - The tumour extends to the lower part of the vagina.
T3b - The tumour extends into the wall of the pelvis OR the tumour has caused injury to the kidney.
T4 - The tumour extends into the bladder or rectum OR the tumour extends outside of the pelvis into the abdomen.
Nodal stage (pN) for endocervical adenocarcinoma
NX - No lymph nodes were sent to pathology for examination.
N0 - No cancer cells were found in any of the lymph nodes examined.
N0(i+) - Only isolated cancer cells were found in a lymph node.
N1 - A group of cancer cells larger than 0.2 millimeters was found in at least one lymph node.
Metastatic stage (pM) for endocervical adenocarcinoma
Endocervical adenocarcinoma is given an metastatic stage of 0 or 1 based on the presence of cancer cells at a distant site in the body (for example the lungs). The metastatic stage can only be assigned if tissue from a distant site is submitted for pathological examination. Because this tissue is rarely present, the metastatic stage cannot be determined and is listed as MX.