by Jason Wasserman MD PhD FRCPC
July 15, 2022
Follicular thyroid carcinoma is a type of thyroid cancer. The tumour starts from the follicular cells normally found in the thyroid gland and is the second most common thyroid cancer in adults. Follicular carcinoma is more likely to develop in older adults and it is rarely seen in children.
Patients with follicular thyroid 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. 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 capsule at all.
The diagnosis of follicular thyroid carcinoma is made after the entire tumour is removed and sent to a pathologist for examination. When viewed under the microscope, the cells in a follicular carcinoma can look very similar to the cells in a non-cancerous type of thyroid tumour called a called follicular adenoma. The only difference between follicular thyroid carcinoma and a follicular adenoma is that the tumour cells in a follicular carcinoma have broken through a thin tissue barrier called the tumour capsule and have spread into the surrounding normal thyroid gland. Pathologists describe this as tumour capsule invasion. In contrast, all of the abnormal cells in a follicular adenoma are separated from the normal thyroid gland by the tumour capsule.
Because the entire tumour capsule needs to be examined, the diagnosis of follicular thyroid carcinoma can only be made after the tumour has been removed and sent to a pathologist for examination under the microscope.
Pathologists use the term invasion to describe the spread of tumour cells into surrounding healthy tissue. The tumour cells in follicular thyroid carcinoma can show three different patterns of invasion: minimally invasive, encapsulated angioinvasive, and widely invasive. The pattern of invasion is very important because encapsulated angioinvasive and widely invasive tumours are much more likely to spread to other parts of the body.
Follicular carcinoma is called minimally invasive when 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 capsule are usually only found after the tissue has been examined under the microscope.
Follicular carcinoma is called encapsulated angioinvasive when tumour cells have broken through the tumour capsule and have spread into a blood vessel. This process is called angioinvasion. The rest of the tumour is usually still separated from the normal thyroid gland by a tumour capsule.
Follicular carcinoma is called widely invasive when the tumour is not surrounded by a tumour capsule or when only a small area of the 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.
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 follicular carcinoma (see Pathologic stage below).
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. Follicular carcinoma is more likely to show angioinvasion than other types of thyroid cancer.
Tumour cells seen inside of a blood vessel is called angioinvasion (vascular invasion). If angioinvasion is seen, your pathologist will count the number of vessels that contain tumour cells.
Your report will describe angioinvasion 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.
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. Follicular carcinoma is less likely to spread to lymph nodes than other types of thyroid carcinoma.
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:
Macroscopic (gross) extrathyroidal extension is important because it increases the tumour stage (see Pathologic stage below) and is associated with a worse prognosis. In contrast, microscopic extrathyroidal extension does not change the tumour stage and is not associated with a worse prognosis.
A margin is the 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.
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. Follicular carcinoma is less likely than other types of thyroid cancer to spread to lymph nodes.
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.
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.
All lymph nodes are surrounded by a thin layer of tissue called a capsule. Extranodal extension (ENE) means that tumour cells have broken through the capsule and spread into the tissue that surrounds the lymph node.
The pathologic stage for follicular thyroid 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.
Follicular thyroid 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).
Follicular thyroid 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.
Follicular thyroid 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.