This article will help you read and understand your pathology report for squamous dysplasia 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 specialized 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 dysplasia in the oral cavity is a pre-cancerous disease. It starts from the squamous cells that cover the inside of the oral cavity including the tongue, inner cheeks, floor of mouth, and gums.
Squamous dysplasia is considered a pre-cancerous because it can over time turn into a type of cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous dysplasia can start in any part of the oral cavity although the most common location is the lateral border of the tongue.
The risk associated with squamous dysplasia turning into cancer depends on how abnormal the squamous cells look under the microscope. The risk of cancer is highest when your pathologist describes the changes as severe (see Grade below).
The most common cause of squamous dysplasia 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 dysplasia 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 dysplasia 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 dysplasia 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 dysplasia 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 dysplasia.
Depending on the grade of the disease (see Grade below), your doctor may recommend surgery to remove all of the abnormal tissue or close clinical follow-up.
Grade is a word pathologists use to describe how different the abnormal cells in an area of squamous dysplasia look compared to the normal, healthy squamous cells that are usually found in the oral cavity.
Pathologists use the size, colour, and shape of the cell to determine the grade. Using these features, squamous dysplasia in the oral cavity is usually divided into three levels:
Some pathology reports will group moderate and severe dysplasia together and call them both high grade dysplasia. Mild dysplasia is called low grade dysplasia.
The grade is very important because it is related to the risk of developing an invasive cancer in the future. Mild (low grade) dysplasia has a very low risk of turning into cancer and is often left untreated. Moderate and severe (high grade) dysplasia is associated with a much higher risk of becoming cancer and patients with this condition are usually offered treatment to remove the diseased tissue.
A margin is any tissue that was cut by the surgeon in order to remove the tumour from your body. The types of margins described in your report will depend on the organ involved and the type of surgery performed. Margins will only be described in your report after the entire tumour has been removed.
A margin is called 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 recur in the same site after treatment. A negative margin means that no tumour cells were seen at any of the cut edges of tissue.