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Understanding Your Pathology Report

Updated September 27, 2010

A pathology report is a document that contains the breast cancer diagnosis determined by looking at cells and tissues under a microscope. The report may also have information about the size, shape and appearance of the cancer as it looks to the naked eye.

A pathologist is a doctor who does this exam and writes the report. Pathology reports play an important role in breast cancer diagnosis and staging (describing the extent of cancer within the body, especially whether it has spread), which helps determine treatment options.

A complete pathology report will not be ready until you have the definitive surgery, surgery to take out all the breast cancer and one or more of the underarm lymph nodes to check for possible signs of cancer there. Over several days to a couple of weeks, this tissue is tested to create that final report. You may even receive a few reports as various tests are done.

Think of the pathology report as the cancer’s “profile,” which will help you and your treatment team answer three questions:

  • How aggressive is the breast cancer?
  • Have any cancer cells left the original tumor and traveled elsewhere, such as the underarm lymph nodes? Are they likely to travel?
  • Does the cancer have biological traits suggesting it is or is not likely to respond to certain treatments?

Your report starts with a brief history of your present condition, where the tissue was removed and the size and appearance of the samples (often called the gross description). More important in planning treatment is the information about the cancer itself, such as the size, how the cancer cells look and behave and whether any lymph nodes contain cancer.

The report also should tell you whether cancer was found in one area or many areas of the breast, and whether any cancer cells made their way to the skin or nipple. Often, the results are summed up in a final section called “Impression,” “Final Diagnosis” or “Summary.”

In this section, learn more about the details of your pathology report.

Tests in Your Pathology Report and What They Mean

6 Helpful Tips for Getting Pathology Test Results

10 Questions to Ask About Your Breast Cancer Pathology Report

Read about the providers who helped us to write this page in our Guide to Understanding Treatment Decisions.