This article will help you read and understand your pathology report for chromophobe renal cell carcinoma.
by Trevor A. Flood, MD FRCPC, updated on December 15, 2020
The kidneys are two bean-shaped organs located near the back of your body just below the rib cage on both the left and the right side. The kidneys are composed of a complex network of millions of microscopic tubules. These tubules act to filter your blood by removing waste products and toxins. The result of this filtration process is the production of urine. After the tubules in your kidneys produce urine, it travels through a thin tubular structure called the ureter. The ureter acts as a connection between the kidney and the urinary bladder. Urine is stored in the bladder before being excreted during urination.
Chromophobe renal cell carcinoma is a type of kidney cancer. The tumour develops from the very small tubules in the kidney. Chromophobe renal cell carcinoma is the third most common type kidney cancer in adults. These tumours generally have an excellent prognosis except when sarcomatoid or rhabdoid cells are found (see Sarcomatoid cells and Rhabdoid cells below).
Many chromophobe renal cell carcinomas are found incidentally at the time of abdominal imaging for other reasons. Patients with these tumours may occasionally experience pain in their back or side or notice blood in their urine. The tumour will appear as a kidney mass on MRI or CT scan of the abdomen.
Most cases of chromophobe renal cell carcinoma are sporadic which means they occur by chance and are unrelated to any known genetic condition. Some patients, however, are born with a syndrome, a genetic condition, that makes them more likely to develop multiple chromophobe renal cell carcinomas and at a younger age.
One genetic syndrome that is associated with the development of chromophobe renal cell carcinoma is called Birt Hogg Dubé syndrome. Birt Hogg Dubé syndrome is characterized by the growth of multiple kidney tumours, including chromophobe renal cell carcinoma. Other features of this syndrome include benign (non-cancerous) skin tumours and cysts in the liver.
The diagnosis of chromophobe renal cell carcinoma can be made after a small sample of tissue is removed in a procedure called a biopsy. Depending on the results of the imaging studies, your doctor may suggest removing the tumour without first performing a biopsy.
This is the size of the tumour measured in centimeters. These tumours are measured in three dimensions but usually only the greatest dimension is included in the report. The tumour size is an important factor in determining the pathologic stage (see Pathologic stage below).
Sometimes, more than one tumour is found in the same kidney. When only one tumour is found, pathologists call this unifocal. When more than one tumour is found, pathologists call this multifocal.
When multiple tumours are found, they are usually of the same type. For example, they are all chromophobe renal cell carcinomas. However, different types of tumours can also be found in the same kidney. In that case, your report will list and describe each type of tumour found.
Pathologists use the word grade to describe how different the cancer cells in chromophobe renal cell carcinoma look compared the cells normally found in the kidney. Pathologists divide the grade into two categories based on how the cancer cells look when examined under the microscope.
Chromophobe renal cell carcinomas tend to look and behave similarly. They are associated with an excellent prognosis (except when sarcomatoid or rhabdoid cells are present). For this reason most tumours are considered low grade.
Normally, the cancer cells in chromophobe renal cell carcinoma are polygonal in shape and they connect together to form sheets of cells. Tumours with these kinds of cells are less likely to spread to other parts of the body and are associated with excellent prognosis.
Sarcomatoid cells are cancer cells that have changed both their shape and their behavior. Sarcomatoid cells can be found in any type of kidney cancer, including chromophobe renal cell carcinoma. Instead of being polygonal in shape, sarcomatoid cells are long and thin. Pathologists describe these cells as spindled.
Finding sarcomatoid cells increases the tumour grade from low to high (see Grade below). Tumours with sarcomatoid cells are associated with worse prognosis because they are more likely to spread to other parts of the body.
Rhabdoid cells are cancer cells that have changed to look similar to muscle cells. Rhabdoid cells can be found in all types of kidney cancer including (although rarely) chromophobe renal cell carcinoma.
Finding rhabdoid cells increases the tumour grade from low to high (see Grade below). Tumours with rhabdoid cells are associated with worse prognosis because they are more likely to spread to other parts of the body.
Necrosis is a form of cell death and it commonly occurs in malignant (cancerous) tumours. Your pathologist will closely examine the tumour for evidence of necrosis. The presence of necrosis is important because it is associated with worse prognosis.
The normal kidney sits near the back of the body and it is surrounded by fat. The adrenal gland sits directly above the kidney and the bladder is attached to the kidney by a long thin tube called the ureter which connects to the kidney in a region called the ‘renal sinus’.
Chromophobe renal cell carcinoma starts inside the kidney but as it grows, it can extend into any of these structures and organs.
Your pathologist will carefully examine the specimen for any evidence of tumour extension and all structures or organs involved will be listed in your report.
Tumour extension into any of these structures or organs is important because it is associated with worse prognosis and it is also used to determine the pathologic stage (see Pathologic stage below).
A margin is the normal tissue that surrounds a tumour and is removed with the tumour at the time of surgery.
If only part of the kidney was removed (a procedure known as a ‘partial nephrectomy’), the margins will include the fat surrounding that portion of the kidney and the area where the kidney was divided.
If the entire kidney was removed (a procedure known as a ‘total’ or ‘radical nephrectomy’) the margins will include the fat surrounding the kidney, the ureter (the tube that connects the kidney to the bladder), and some large blood vessels (usually arteries and veins). Some larger specimens may include additional margins.
A margin is considered positive when the cancer cells are seen at the cut edge of the tissue. Your pathologist will report any positive margins and the location of that margin. A positive margin is associated with an increased risk of the tumour coming back in the same area of the body.
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 each lymph node 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.
The pathologic stage for chromophobe renal cell carcinoma 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.
Chromophobe renal cell carcinoma is given a tumour stage between 1 and 4 based on the size of the tumour and the growth of the tumour into organs attached to the kidney.
Chromophobe renal cell carcinoma is given a nodal stage of 0 or 1 based on the presence of cancer cells in a lymph node. If no lymph nodes are involved the nodal stage is 0. If any cancer cells are seen in a lymph node the nodal stage is 1.
Chromophobe renal cell carcinoma is given a 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 determined if tissue from a distant site is sent for pathological examination. Because this tissue is rarely present, the metastatic stage cannot be determined and is listed as MX.
Non-neoplastic kidney is the tissue outside of the tumour. Your pathologist will carefully examine the non-neoplastic tissue for evidence of other diseases that can commonly affect the kidney such as arterionephrosclerosis (high blood pressure) and diabetic nephropathy (diabetes).