Your diagnosis

Squamous cell carcinoma of the lung

This article will help you read and understand your pathology report for squamous cell carcinoma of the lung.

by Jason Wasserman MD PhD FRCPC, updated January 6, 2021

Quick facts:
  • Squamous cell carcinoma is a type of lung cancer.
  • Smoking is the most common cause of squamous cell carcinoma in the lung.
  • Your pathology report will include important information such as the tumour size and whether cancer cells have traveled to any lymph nodes.
The normal lungs and airways

The lungs are large organs found in our chest. They are connected to the outside of the body by hollow tubes called airways. Air travels from our mouth and nose down the airways into the lungs.

The lungs are a paired organ which means there is one on each side of the body (right and left). Each lung is divided into lobes. The right lung has three lobes, upper, middle, and lower. The left lung has only two lobes, upper and lower.

The body needs oxygen to produce energy. In the lungs, oxygen leaves the air and enters our blood. The oxygen is then delivered to the whole body by the blood. The production of energy creates carbon dioxide which is removed from the blood in the lungs.

Normal lung

The inner surface of the large airways are lined by special cells called squamous cells. The squamous cells form a barrier called the epithelium which helps protect the airways from damage.

The inner surface of the smaller airways are lined by rectangular shaped shaped that have small projections on their surface called cilia. These cells form a barrier that pathologists call respiratory type epithelium. Over time, the cells in the respiratory type epithelium can change into squamous cells. This process is called metaplasia.

The lungs are made up of thousands of small air filled spaces. These air filled spaces are lined by a single layer of small flat cells called pneumocytes. The tissue just below the pneumocytes is called stroma.

What is squamous cell carcinoma?

Squamous cell carcinoma is a type of lung cancer. Squamous cell carcinoma starts from the squamous cells that line the inside of the large or small airways.

These tumours develop when the squamous cells become damaged (often by the chemicals in cigarette smoke) and start to grow abnormally. All tumours start within the epithelium on the inside of an airway but most quickly grow into the surrounding tissue. The movement of cancer cells from airways into the surrounding lung tissue is called invasion.

How do pathologists make this diagnosis?​

The diagnosis of squamous cell carcinoma is usually made after a small sample of tissue is removed in a procedure called a biopsy or a fine needle aspiration (FNA). Surgery may then be performed to remove the entire tumour.

When examined under the microscope, the tumour cells in squamous cell carcinoma look different from the healthy squamous cells that normally line the inside of the airways. The tumour cells are usually larger than normal squamous cells and the nucleus of the cell which holds the genetic material is darker. Pathologists describe these cells as hyperchromatic. Tumour cells also tend to show a range of shapes and sizes which pathologists describe as pleomorphic. Tumour cells dividing to create new tumour cells are also usually seen. A cell in the process of dividing is called a mitotic figure and the process is called mitosis.

Once the tumour is removed, you may see the name of the procedure performed in your pathology report. The name will depend on the amount of tissue removed.

Procedure names include:

  • Wedge resection – In this procedure the tumour is removed with only a small amount of normal lung around it.
  • Lobectomy – In this procedure, the entire lobe of the lung is removed along with the tumour.
  • Pneumonectomy – In this procedure the entire lung on one side of the body is removed along with the tumour.

Your pathologist may perform a test called immunohistochemistry to confirm the diagnosis. The results will be described as positive (reactive) or negative (non-reactive).

Squamous cell carcinoma usually shows the following results:

  • p40 – Positive.
  • CK5 – Positive.
  • TTF-1 – Negative.
  • Chromogranin – Negative.
  • Synaptophysin – Negative.

This test is used to confirm the diagnosis of squamous cell carcinoma. Your report may not include all of the results shown above.

Tumour size

​This is the size of the tumour measured in centimeters (cm). The size of the tumour can only be measured after the entire tumour has been removed. The tumour is measured in three dimensions but only the largest dimension may be described in your pathology report.

The tumour size is important because it is used to determine the tumour stage (see Pathologic stage below).

Multiple tumours

In some situations, more than one tumour is found when the lung tissue is examined under the microscope. When this happens, each tumour will be described separately in your report.

There are two possible explanations for finding more than one tumour:

  1. The cancer cells from one tumour have spread to another part of the lung. This explanation is more likely when all of the tumours are of the same type. For example, all of the tumours are squamous cell carcinoma. If the tumours are on the same side as the body, the smaller tumours are called nodules. If the tumours are on different sides of the body (right and left lung), the smaller tumour is called a metastasis.
  2. The tumours are unrelated. This is the more likely explanation when the tumours are of different types. For example, one tumour is a squamous cell carcinoma and the other is an adenocarcinoma. In this situation the tumours are considered separate primaries and not metastatic disease.​

Tumour nodules increase the tumour stage while metastatic disease increases the metastatic stage (see Pathologic stage below). Both are associated with worse prognosis.

Pleural invasion

​The lungs are surrounded by a thin tissue called pleura. The pleura has both an inner and outer lining. The inner lining touches the lung and the outer lining faces an open cavity called the pleural space.

Tumours that break through the inner lining of the pleura can spread into the pleural space and from there to other parts of the body.

Your pathologist will closely examine all the sections of pleura under the microscope to see if any cancer cells have passed the inner lining of the pleural. The movement of cancer cells through the inner lining of the pleural is called pleural invasion.

Pleural invasion is important because it increases the tumour stage (see Pathologic stage below) and is associated with worse prognosis.

Invasion of organs outside of the lung

The lung is surrounded by several organs including bones, muscles, diaphragm, heart, esophagus, and trachea. Large tumours can grow grow beyond the lung and into any of these surrounding organs.

Invasion into another organ is important because it increases the tumour stage (see Pathologic stage below) and is associated with worse prognosis.

Treatment effect​

Treatment effect is described in your report only if you received either chemotherapy or radiation therapy prior to surgery to remove the tumour. In order to determine the treatment effect, your pathologist will measure the amount of living (viable) tumour and express that number as a percentage of the original tumour.

For example if your pathologist finds 1 cm of viable tumour and the original tumour was 10 cm, the percentage of viable tumour is 10%.

Lymphovascular invasion

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.

lymphovascular invasion

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.


In order to remove a tumour from the lung, normal lung tissue, blood vessels, and airways all have to be cut. Any tissue that is cut when removing a tumour is called a margin and all margins are examined closely for any microscopic evidence of tumour.


For squamous cell carcinoma, a margin is considered positive when there are cancer cells at the edge of the cut tissue. If no cancer cells are seen at any of the cut edges of tissue, the margins are called negative. A positive margin is associated with a higher risk that the cancer will re-grow (local recurrence) in the same site after treatment.

Margins will only be described in your report after the entire tumour has been removed.

Lymph nodes​

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.

Lymph nodes from the neck, chest, and lungs may be removed at the same time as the tumour. These lymph nodes are divided into areas called stations. There are 14 different stations in the neck, chest, and lungs. Your pathology report will describe the number of lymph nodes examined from each station.

Lymph node stations

Stations that may be described in your report:

  • Station 1 – Lower cervical, supraclavicular, and sternal notch lymph nodes.
  • Station 2 – Upper paratracheal lymph nodes.
  • Station 3 – Prevascular and retrotracheal lymph nodes.
  • Station 4 – Lower paratracheal lymph nodes.
  • Station 5 – Subaortic lymph nodes (aorto-pulmonary window).
  • Station 6 – Paraaortic lymph nodes (ascending aorta or phrenic).
  • Station 7 – Subcarinal lymph nodes.
  • Station 8 – Paraesophageal lymph nodes (below carina).
  • Station 9 – Pulmonary ligament lymph nodes.
  • Station 10 – Hilar lymph nodes.
  • Station 11 – Interlobar lymph nodes.
  • Station 12 – Lobar lymph nodes.
  • Station 13 – Segmental lymph nodes.
  • Station 14 – Subsegmental lymph nodes.

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. If cancer cells are found in a lymph node, the station of the positive lymph node will be described in your report.

Finding cancer cells in a lymph node increases the nodal stage (see Pathologic stage below) and is associated with worse prognosis. The nodal stage selected will depend on where the lymph node with cancer cells was located (the station).

Pathologic stage

​The pathologic stage for squamous 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.

Tumour stage (pT) for squamous cell carcinoma of the lung

Squamous cell carcinoma is given a tumour stage between 1 and 4 based on the size of the tumour, the number of tumours found in the tissue examined, and whether the tumour has broken through the pleural or has spread to organs around the lungs.

Lung SCC staging

Nodal stage (pN) for squamous cell carcinoma of the lung

Squamous cell carcinoma is given a nodal stage between 0 and 3 based on the presence or absence of cancer cells in a lymph node and the location of the lymph nodes that contain cancer cells.

  • NX – No lymph nodes were sent for pathologic examination.
  • N0 – No cancer cells were found in any of the lymph nodes examine
  • N1 – Cancer cells were found in at least one lymph node from inside the lung or around the large airways leading into the lung. This stage includes stations 10 through 14.
  • N2 -Cancer cells were found in at least one lymph node from the tissue in the middle of the chest and around the large airways. This stage includes stations 7 through 9.
  • N3 – Cancer cells were found in the neck or in any lymph nodes on the side of the body opposite (contralateral) to the tumour. This stage includes stations 1 through 6.
Metastatic stage (pM) for squamous cell carcinoma of the lung

Squamous cell carcinoma is given a metastatic stage of 0 or 1 based on the presence of cancer cells in the lung on the opposite side of the body or at a distant body site (for example the brain).

The metastatic stage can only be determined if tissue from the opposite lung or distant site is sent for pathological examination. Because this tissue is rarely present, the metastatic stage cannot be determined and is listed as pMX.

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