This article will help you read and understand your pathology report for squamous carcinoma in situ of the oral cavity.
by Jason Wasserman, MD PhD FRCPC, updated January 6, 2021
The oral cavity is the beginning of the aerodigestive tract. It is used for both breathing and taking in food. The oral cavity is a complex area of the body that is made up of many parts.
The oral cavity includes:
The inner surface of the oral cavity is covered by cells called squamous cells. that form a barrier called the epithelium. The tissue below the epithelium is called stroma. Pathologists use the word mucosa to describe tissue that includes both the epithelium and the stroma.
Squamous carcinoma in situ is a type of non-invasive type cancer. Squamous carcinoma in situ starts from the squamous cells on the inner surface of the oral cavity. Another name for squamous carcinoma in situ is severe squamous dysplasia.
If left untreated, squamous carcinoma in situ almost always turns into a type of invasive cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous carcinoma in situ can start in any part of the oral cavity although the most common location is the lateral border of the tongue.
The most common cause of squamous carcinoma in situ in the oral cavity is smoking. Other causes include excessive alcohol consumption, immune suppression, and prior radiation to the head and neck.
The diagnosis of squamous carcinoma in situ is usually made after a small sample of tissue is removed in a procedure called a biopsy. The biopsy is usually performed because you or your doctor saw an abnormal looking area of tissue within your oral cavity. Your pathology report will probably say what part of the oral cavity was sampled in the biopsy.
The diagnosis of squamous carcinoma in situ can only be made after a tissue sample is examined under the microscope. Compared to normal, healthy squamous cells, the abnormal cells in an area of squamous carcinoma in situ are larger, darker, and disorganized.
Pathologists use the word hyperchromatic to describe cells that look darker than normal cells. Large clumps of genetic material called nucleoli may also be seen in the nucleus of the abnormal cells. These squamous cells also commonly undergo an abnormal pattern of development which results in a process called keratinization.
The abnormal cells in squamous carcinoma in situ are only seen in the epithelium. This is different from squamous cell carcinoma where the abnormal cells are also seen in the stroma below the epithelium. The movement of abnormal cells from the epithelium into the stroma is called invasion. Your pathologist will carefully examine your tissue sample to make sure there is no evidence of invasion before making the diagnosis of squamous carcinoma in situ.
This is the size of the tumour measured in centimeters. The tumour is usually measured in three dimensions but only the largest dimension is described in your report. For example, if the tumour measures 2.0 cm by 1.5 cm by 1.2 cm, your report will describe the tumour as being 2.0 cm.
A margin is any tissue that was cut by the surgeon in order to remove the tumour from your body. Whenever possible, surgeons will try to cut tissue outside of the tumour to reduce the risk that any cancer cells will be left behind after the tumour is removed.
Your pathologist will carefully examine all the margins in your tissue sample to see how close the tumour cells are to the edge of the cut tissue. Margins will only be described in your report after the entire tumour has been removed.
A negative margin means there were no tumour cells at the very edge of the cut tissue. If all the margins are negative, most pathology reports will say how far the closest tumour cells were to a margin. The distance is usually described in millimeters.
A margin is considered positive when there are tumour cells at the very edge of the cut tissue. A positive margin is associated with a higher risk that the tumour will come back (recur) in the same site after treatment.
Lymph nodes are small immune organs located throughout the body. Tumour cells can travel from the tumour to a lymph node through lymphatic channels located in and around the tumour. The movement of tumour cells from the tumour to a lymph node is called a metastasis.
Lymph nodes are not always removed for squamous carcinoma in situ. When lymph nodes are removed at the same time as the tumour, they are usually fro the neck and the procedure is called a neck dissection.
The lymph nodes removed usually come from different areas of the neck and each area is called a level. The levels in the neck include 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. Your pathology report will often describe how many lymph nodes were seen in each level sent for examination.
Lymph nodes on the same side as the tumour are called ipsilateral while those on the opposite side of the tumour are called contralateral.
Your pathologist will carefully examine each lymph node for tumour cells. Lymph nodes that contain tumour cells are often called positive while those that do not contain any tumour cells are called negative. Most reports include the total number of lymph nodes examined and the number, if any, that contain tumour cells.
Because squamous carcinoma in situ is a non-invasive disease, it is very unlikely that cancer cells will be found in any of the lymph nodes examined.