Learn about your pathology report:

Hurthle cell carcinoma

What is Hurthle cell carcinoma?

A Hurthle cell carcinoma is a type of thyroid cancer. It is made up of large pink cells called Hurthle cells. This type of cancer is more likely to develop in older adults and it is rarely seen in children. Patients with Hurthle cell carcinoma may notice a growth or lump in the front of their neck. An ultrasound performed may show one or more nodules in the thyroid gland.

Hurthle cells

The thyroid gland

The thyroid is a U-shaped gland located in the front of the neck. The normal thyroid gland is divided into right and left lobes that are connected in the middle by the isthmus. Some people also have another small lobe above the isthmus called the pyramidal lobe.

Anatomy thyroid gland

The thyroid gland makes thyroid hormone. Most of the cells in the thyroid gland are called follicular cells. The follicular cells connect together to form small round structures called follicles. Thyroid hormone is stored in a material called colloid which fills the centre of follicles.

How do pathologists make this diagnosis?

The diagnosis of Hurthle cell carcinoma can only be made after the entire tumour is removed and sent to a pathologist for examination under the microscope. However, most patients undergo a minor surgical procedure called a fine-needle aspiration or FNA before the tumour is removed completely. This procedure uses a very thin needle to remove a small amount of tissue from the abnormal area of the thyroid gland. This tissue is then examined by a pathologist under the microscope. The FNA biopsy provides a preliminary diagnosis that helps guide further management.

Most tumours are separated from the normal surrounding thyroid gland by a thin tissue barrier called a tumour capsule. Over time, some of the tumour capsule may disappear and large tumours may not have any tumour capsule at all.

Hurthle cell carcinoma is made up of large pink Hurthle cells. The Hurthle cells are typically arranged in small to medium-sized follicles. When viewed under the microscope, the cells in a Hurthle cell carcinoma can look very similar to the cells in a non-cancerous type of thyroid tumour called a called Hurthle cell adenoma. The only difference between a Hurthle cell carcinoma and a Hurthle cell adenoma is that the tumour cells in a Hurthle cell carcinoma have broken through the tumour capsule and have entered the surrounding normal thyroid gland. Pathologists describe this as tumour capsule invasion. In contrast, all of the abnormal cells in a Hurthle cell adenoma are separated from the normal thyroid gland by the tumour capsule.

Hurthle cell adenoma

Hurthle cell carcinoma

Tumour size

This is the size of the tumour measured in centimetres (cm). The tumour is usually measured in three dimensions but only the largest dimension is described in your report. For example, if the tumour measures 4.0 cm by 2.0 cm by 1.5 cm, your report will describe the tumour as being 4.0 cm. Tumour size plays an important role in determining the pathologic tumour stage for Hurtle cell carcinoma (see Pathologic stage below).

Patterns of invasion

The movement of tumour cells into the surrounding normal thyroid tissue is called invasion. Hurthle cell carcinoma can show two patterns of invasion:

  • Minimally invasive – This means that the tumour is surrounded by a tumour capsule but tumour cells were found spreading past the capsule into the normal thyroid gland. The tumour cells that have spread past the tumour capsule are usually only found after the tissue has been examined under the microscope.
  • Widely invasive – This means that the tumour is not surrounded by a tumour capsule or that only a small area of tumour capsule still remains. The cells in a widely invasive tumour have spread much further into the normal thyroid than the cells in a minimally invasive tumour. In some cases, the spread of tumour cells into the normal thyroid gland can be seen without a microscope during the gross examination. Widely invasive tumours are more likely to spread to lymph nodes and other parts of the body. The spread of tumour cells to a lymph node or other body site is called metastasis.
Vascular invasion (angioinvasion)

​Blood vessels carry blood around the body. Tumour cells that enter a blood vessel are able to spread to distant parts of the body such as the lungs and bones. The movement of tumour cells to another part of the body is called metastasis.

Tumour cells seen inside of a blood vessel is called vascular invasion (angioinvasion). If vascular invasion is seen, your pathologist will count the number of vessels that contain tumour cells.

Your report will describe vascular invasion as negative if no cancer cells are seen inside of a blood vessel, positive and focal if there are less than 4 blood vessels with cancer cells, and positive and diffuse if there are 4 or more blood vessels with cancer cells.

Lymphatic invasion

​Lymphatics are small thin vessels that provide a way for fluids and cells to leave a tissue. Lymphatics are found all over the body. Tumour cells that enter a lymphatic vessel are able to spread to other parts of the body, in particular lymph nodes.

Tumour cells seen inside a lymphatic vessel is called lymphatic invasion. Your pathologist will carefully examine your tissue for lymphatic invasion. If lymphatic invasion is seen, it will be called positive. If no lymphatic invasion is seen, it will be called negative.

Extrathyroidal extension

​Extrathyroidal extension is the movement of tumour cells out of the thyroid gland and into the surrounding tissues. Tumour cells that move far enough out of the thyroid gland may come into contact with additional structures such as muscles, the esophagus, or the trachea.​

There are two types of extrathyroidal extension:

  • Microscopic – The tumour cells outside of the thyroid gland were only found after the tumour was examined under the microscope.
  • Macroscopic (gross) – The tumour can be seen growing into the surrounding tissues without the use of a microscope. This type of extrathyroidal extension may be seen by your surgeon at the time of surgery or by the pathologist assistant performing the gross examination of the tissue sent to pathology.

Macroscopic (gross) extrathyroidal extension increases the tumour stage (see Pathologic stage below) and is associated with a worse prognosis. Microscopic extrathyroidal extension does not change the tumour stage.

Margins

​A margin is tissue that has to be cut by the surgeon to remove the thyroid gland from your body.  A margin is considered positive when there are cancer cells at the very edge of the cut tissue. A negative margin means there were no cancer cells seen at the cut edge of the tissue.

Margin

Lymph nodes

Lymph nodes are small immune organs located throughout the body. Tumour cells can travel from the thyroid to a lymph node through lymphatic channels located in and around the tumour (see Lymphatic invasion above). The movement of tumour cells from the thyroid to a lymph node is called metastasis.

Lymph node

Lymph nodes from the neck are sometimes removed at the same time as the thyroid in a procedure 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 are numbered 1 through 7. 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 cancer cells are called negative. Most reports include the total number of lymph nodes examined and the number, if any, that contain cancer cells.

Tumour deposit

A group of cancer cells inside of a lymph node is called a tumour deposit. If a tumour deposit is found, your pathologist will measure the deposit and the largest tumour deposit found will be described in your report.

Extranodal extension (ENE)

All lymph nodes are surrounded by a capsule. Extranodal extension (ENE) means that tumour cells have broken through the capsule and spread into the tissue that surrounds the lymph node.

Pathologic stage (pTNM)

​​The pathologic stage for Hurthle 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 a worse prognosis.

Tumour stage (pT) for Hurthle cell carcinoma

Hurthle cell carcinoma is given a tumour stage between 1 and 4 based on the size of the tumour and the presence of tumour cells outside of the thyroid (see Extrathyroidal extension above).

  • T1 – The tumour is less than or equal to 2 cm and the cancer cells do not extend beyond the thyroid gland.
  • T2 – The tumour is greater than 2 cm but less than or equal to 4 cm and the cancer cells do not extend beyond the thyroid gland.
  • T3 – The tumour is greater than 4 cm OR the cancer cells extend into the muscles outside of the thyroid gland.
  • T4 – The cancer cells extend to structures or organs outside of the thyroid gland including the trachea, larynx, or esophagus.
Nodal stage (pN) for Hurthle cell carcinoma

Hurthle cell carcinoma is given a nodal stage of 0 or 1 based on the presence or absence of tumour cells in a lymph node and the location of the involved lymph nodes.

  • N0 – No tumour cells were found in any of the lymph nodes examined.
  • N1a – Tumour cells were found in one or more lymph node from levels 6 or 7.
  • N1b – Tumour cells were found in one or more lymph node from levels 1 through 5.
  • NX – No lymph nodes were sent to pathology for examination.
Metastatic stage (pM) for Hurthle cell carcinoma

Follicular carcinoma is given a metastatic stage of 0 or 1 based on the presence of tumour 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 sent, the metastatic stage cannot be determined and is listed as MX.

by Jason Wasserman, MD PhD FRCPC (updated July 16, 2021)
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