Understanding Your Pathology Report

Getting an advanced breast cancer diagnosis can be scary and surprising. The words used by your doctor may be confusing; the medical terms may not be familiar to you. To more fully comprehend what you’ve been told, it’s important to understand the distinguishing characteristics of your individual pathology report.


Pathology is the study of the way a disease works. A pathologist is a medical doctor whose specialty is the study of the anatomical and physiological examination of blood, body fluid and tissue for diagnostic purposes. As part of a breast cancer diagnosis, your doctor will take cell samples for the lab to analyze. This is called a specimen. Specimens are obtained through surgery, scoping, or with a needle to withdraw tissue or fluid.

A precise breast cancer diagnosis by a pathologist will aid your oncologist in recommending a personalized treatment targeted at your cancer’s individual characteristics.

What is a pathology report?

Lab results prepared by a pathologist provide information on cells or biopsied tissue examined with a microscope. A pathology report is generally technical and written by physicians for physicians. The report prepared by a pathologist is generally intended for oncologists.1

What’s in a pathology report?

Standard information on all cases generally contains:1,2


  • Patient information
  • Case number
  • Physician contact information
  • Lab information
  • Specimen information

Preoperative diagnosis

  • What the doctor anticipates the diagnosis to be before the specimen review


  • The type of procedure used to obtain the specimen sample

Gross description

  • Macroscopic information visible to the eye such as weight, size, color of sample

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 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 characteristics


  • Cancer type
  • Pathologic staging results
  • Other test results


  • Details on most important results in a table and indications for treatment options and recovery


  • Description of any issues or concerns with the sample or recommendations for additional testing

Pathologist signature

  • The name, date, and signature of the pathologist reviewing the lab results

Ask for a copy of your report

Get a copy of the pathology report for your records. It may be difficult to understand all of the medical terminologies but 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.

A pathology report can be subjective, based on interpretation. Therefore a diagnosis is not always black and white. It is OK to ask questions and/or to seek a second opinion of the specimen sample.

Talk to your doctor

Your pathology report can be hard to understand yet useful in helping you to better understand what kind of breast cancer you have and what choices you will need to make in treating it.

Consider some of these questions:

  • What specific type of breast cancer do I have?
  • 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 informed and better prepared for treating your advanced breast cancer.

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