This article will help you read and understand your pathology report for endocervical adenocarcinoma.
by Emily Goebel, MD FRCPC, updated December 23, 2020
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.
Endocervical adenocarcinoma is a type of cervical cancer. The tumour develops in the cervix from the glands normally found in the endocervical canal.
Most of the time endocervical adenocarcinoma develops from a non-invasive type of cancer called adenocarcinoma in situ (AIS). In AIS the cancer cells are seen only in the epithelium of the cervix. Endocervical adenocarcinoma develops when the cancer cells spread from the epithelium into the stroma below. The spread of cancer cells into the dermis is called invasion.
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.
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. Pathologists often indirectly look for HPV by performing a test called immunohistochemistry for a protein called p16. Cells infected with HPV will be positive for p16.
The diagnosis of endocervical adenocarcinoma is usually made after a small sample of tissue is removed from the cervix during a Pap test. The diagnosis can also be made after a larger sample of tissue is removed in a biopsy or resection. After the initial diagnosis is made, most patients are offered surgery to remove the entire tumour.
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.
Poorly differentiated tumours grow more quickly and are more likely to spread to other parts of the body.
This is the size of the tumour, measured in three dimensions. The size of the tumour cannot be measured on tissue from a pap smear.
The size of the tumour is used to determine the tumour stage (see Pathologic stage below).
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.
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.
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).
The tissue below the epithelium is called stroma. When cancer cells enter the stroma it is called stromal invasion. After examining your tissue sample, your pathologist will measure the amount of stromal invasion in two directions:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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:
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.
Finding cancer cells at the margin increases the risk that the tumour will grow back in that location.
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.
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.