Understanding Your Pathology Report

Getting a lung cancer diagnosis can be scary and surprising, especially when it comes along with a confusing pathology report. The words used by your doctor may not make any sense to you. The medical terms may not be familiar to you yet. To better understand what you have been told, it is important to understand what your pathology report means.

Back to basics: what is pathology?

Pathology is the study of the way a disease works. A pathologist is a doctor who studies samples of blood, body fluids, and tissue to diagnose a disease.

The link between lung cancer and pathology

As part of a lung cancer diagnosis, your doctor will take different samples. These will get sent to a lab to be analyzed. This is called a specimen. Specimens are gathered during a biopsy, surgery, or through a blood test or urine sample and viewed under a microscope.

A more exact lung cancer diagnosis by a pathologist with knowledge from your pathology report is helpful. This will guide your oncologist in building a treatment plan targeted to your specific type of lung cancer.

Let's get in to it: what is a cancer pathology report?

A pathology report gives you and your doctor important information about your lung cancer cells. This report is not written for an average consumer to understand. It is a technical report written by physicians for physicians. However, you can still educate yourself about the information in your pathology report and understand some things.1

The information on a pathology report

Standard information that all pathology reports generally include:1


  • Patient information
  • Case number
  • Doctor contact information
  • Lab information
  • Specimen information
  • Preoperative diagnosis

  • What your doctor thinks the diagnosis may be before your samples were examined
  • Procedure

  • The type of procedure used to get the specimen samples
  • Gross description

  • Things visible to the eye, such as weight, size, and color of tissues or body fluids
  • Microscopic description (the most technical section)

  • Cell structure (histology): The kind of cancer identified
  • Tumor margins: Whether or not there are cancer cells at the edge of a tissue sample
  • Depth of invasion: Is the tumor invasive, metastatic, or noninvasive
  • Pathologic stage: (T) Size and location of tumor, (N) whether it has spread to nearby lymph nodes, (M) whether the tumor has spread to other parts of the body
  • Tumor grading: How cancer cells compare to normal healthy cells
  • Special tests or markers
  • Results of special tests performed in the lab to identify unique parts of these cells
  • Diagnosis

  • Cancer type
  • Pathologic staging results
  • Other test results
  • Summary

  • Details on the most important results listed in a table. This may also include possible treatment options
  • Comments

  • Description of any concerns about the sample or recommendations for more tests
  • Pathologist signature

  • The name, date, and signature of the pathologist reviewing the lab results
  • Tip #1: Ask for a copy of your report

    Get a copy of the pathology report for your records. It may be hard to understand all of the medical language. But this report is an important part of the documentation you should keep. Reviewing the report with your doctor will help you better understand your diagnosis and treatment options.

    Keep in mind that a pathology report can be subjective and based on interpretation. Therefore a diagnosis is not always black and white. It is okay to ask questions and seek a second opinion of the specimen sample.

    Tip #2: Talk to your doctor

    When talking to your doctor about your pathology results, consider asking some of these questions:

  • What specific type of lung cancer do I have?
  • What does my stage mean?
  • Is it invasive or noninvasive and what does that mean?
  • Will I need surgery?
  • Do I need more tests?
  • What are my treatment options?
  • What is my prognosis? Will I get better?
  • How long is the treatment process?
  • Understanding your pathology report will help you be more informed and better prepared for treating your lung cancer.

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