This article will help you read and understand your pathology report for squamous cell carcinoma of the larynx.
by Jason Wasserman MD PhD FRCPC, updated January 6, 2021
When we breathe, air travels from our mouth and nose to our lungs. On its way to the lungs, air passes through a part of the throat called the larynx. You cannot see your larynx because it starts at the very back of the tongue.
Most of the larynx is a hollow tube filled with air. The larynx helps us breathe and create sound when we talk. For this reason, diseases involving the larynx often make it difficult to breathe or talk normally.
The larynx is divided into three sections from top to bottom and each section is made up of smaller parts. Most pathology reports will describe the sections or parts of the larynx examined.
Supraglottis – The supraglottis is the first section of the larynx.
The supraglottis is divided into the follow parts:
Glottis – The glottis is the second section and it is in the middle of the larynx.
The glottis is divided into the following parts:
Subglottis– The subglottis is the third and last section of the larynx. It is not further divided into parts.
The inner surface of the larynx is lined by specialized cells called squamous cells that create a barrier called the epithelium. The tissue below the epithelium is called stroma. The epithelium is separated from the stroma by a thin strip of tissue called the basement membrane. Pathologists use the word mucosa to describe all of the tissue above the stroma.
Squamous cell carcinoma is a type of throat cancer. Squamous cell carcinoma starts in the larynx from the squamous cells in the epithelium. Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common type of cancer in the larynx. This type of cancer can start anywhere in the larynx although the most common site is the glottis.
Most of the time squamous cell carcinoma develops from a pre-cancerous disease called squamous dysplasia. This condition may be present for many years before turning into squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous dysplasia is divided into three levels (mild, moderate, and severe) and the risk of developing cancer is highest with severe squamous dysplasia. Another name for severe squamous dysplasia is squamous carcinoma in situ.
In squamous dysplasia, the abnormal cells are seen only in the epithelium on the inner surface of the larynx. Squamous cell carcinoma develops when the abnormal cells spread from the epithelium into the stroma below (see pictures below). The spread of cancer cells into the stroma is called invasion.
Once cancer cells enter the stroma they are able to spread to other parts of the body such as lymph nodes. The movement of cancer cells from the tumour to a different part of the body is called metastasis.
Most squamous cell carcinomas of the larynx are described as keratinizing because the cancer cells produce a protein called keratin which is normally found in the skin but not in the larynx.
Smoking and high levels of alcohol consumption increase the risk for developing both squamous cell carcinoma and squamous dysplasia.
Treatment options for squamous cell carcinoma include surgery to remove the diseased tissue and radiation. The type of surgery offered and the amount of tissue removed will depend on the part of the larynx involved and the size of the area with disease.
The diagnosis of squamous cell carcinoma is usually made after a small tissue sample is removed in a procedure called a biopsy. The biopsy may be taken from the oropharynx or it may be taken from the neck. A special test called immunohistochemistry may be ordered to confirm the diagnosis.
For some patients, surgery may be performed to remove the entire tumour. Other patients may receive radiation therapy with or without surgery to remove the tumour. If the tumour is removed, it will be sent to a pathologist who will prepare another pathology report. This report will confirm or revise the original diagnosis and provide additional important information such tumour size, tumour grade, and spread of tumour cells to lymph nodes. This information is used to determine the cancer stage and to decide if additional treatment is required.
Pathologists use the word grade to describe the difference between the cancer cells in squamous cell carcinoma and the normal, healthy squamous cells found in the larynx. The grade is divided into three levels of differentiation based on how the cancer cells look when examined under the microscope.
Grade is important because poorly differentiated tumours are more likely to spread to other parts of the body such as lymph nodes. For this reason, poorly differentiated tumours are often associated with a worse prognosis.
This is the size of the tumour measured in centimetres. 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.
As described above, the larynx is divided into three sections: supraglottis, glottis, and subglottis. Your pathologist will examine the tissue removed to determine where the tumour started and if it involves more than one section of the larynx.
The parts of the larynx involved by tumour will only be described in your report after the entire tumour has been removed.
The section of the larynx with the largest amount of tumour is usually the section where the tumour started. Most tumours in the larynx start in the glottis. A tumour start starts in either the supraglottis or glottis and grows down into the subglottis is called transglottic.
The parts of the larynx involved by tumour are used to determine the tumour stage (see Pathologic stage below). A tumour that involves more then one part of the larynx or that shows transglottic spread is given a higher tumour stage and is associated with worse prognosis.
Nerves are like long wires made up of groups of cells called neurons. Nerves send information (such as temperature, pressure, and pain) between your brain and your body. Perineural invasion means that cancer cells were seen attached to a nerve.
Cancer cells that have attached to a nerve can use the nerve to travel into tissue outside of the original tumour. This increases the risk that the tumour will come back in the same area of the body (recurrence) after treatment.
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.
Lymph nodes from the neck are sometimes removed at the same time as the main tumour 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 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 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.
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.
The size of the largest tumour deposit is used to determine the nodal stage (see Pathologic stage below) and larger tumour deposits are associated with worse prognosis.
All lymph nodes are surrounded by a capsule. Extranodal extension (ENE) means that cancer cells have broken through the capsule and into the tissue that surrounds the lymph node.
Extranodal extension is used to determine the nodal stage (see pathologic stage below) and is a risk factor for developing new tumours. For these reasons, extranodal extension is often considered when making decisions about radiation therapy to the neck.
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.
The pathologic stage for squamous cell carcinoma in the larynx 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.
There are three different tumour staging systems for squamous cell carcinoma of the larynx. The system selected depends on which section of the larynx the tumour started.
Squamous cell carcinoma of the larynx is given a nodal stage between 0 and 3 based on the examination of all lymph nodes received. Both N2 and N3 are further divided into sub-stages (for example N2a, N2b, etc).
The following four features are used to determine the nodal stage.
Using these features your pathologist will provide a nodal stage as follows:
Squamous cell carcinoma of the larynx is given an 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 assigned 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.