Histopathology is a medical practice in which doctors view tissues under a microscope to identify potential changes. A histopathologist can view potentially cancerous or atypical tissues and aid other medical specialists in making diagnoses or assessing the effectiveness of treatments.

If your doctor orders tests for a histopathologist to review, it’s understandable you might have questions about the review process. Keep reading to find out more about what histopathology is and what information you may learn from a histopathology report.

To understand histopathology, let’s break down the name. “Histo” stands for “tissue” while “pathology” is the study of disease. When you put it together, histopathology means exactly what it describes: the study of diseased tissues.

Histopathologists will examine tissue samples that doctors or the histopathologists themselves obtain. A histopathologist may have to cut the tissue sample to get smaller samples to look at under a microscope.

They will then prepare the tissue sample as a slide, when they put the tissue between two small glass pieces for viewing under a microscope. Once they evaluate the specimens, a histopathologist will write a report on what they see in the biopsies, including if the tissue looks typical.

Some of the information that they may include in a histopathology report could be:

  • a generalized description of the tissue
  • what the sample looks like under a microscope
  • a size estimate of the tumor
  • tumor margins, which can indicate if a surgeon removes the whole the tumor
  • other relevant notes about the sample

The histopathology report can sometimes be complex. It’s a good idea to always have a doctor review the results with you, especially positive ones.

What is the difference between biopsy and histopathology?

Many medical professionals use the terms “biopsy” and “histopathology” interchangeably. A biopsy involves taking a tissue sample to evaluate it for atypical cells. Sound familiar? That’s because histopathology involves looking at those cell samples.

If you want to get technical, a biopsy is a procedure for gathering the tissues, while histopathology is a study of the sample itself. Also, histopathology can involve looking at samples from entire organs, which technically isn’t a biopsy.

Your doctor may call a report after a biopsy, either a biopsy report or a histopathology report.

Was this helpful?

Doctors most commonly perform histopathology so that a histopathologist can view the sample for the presence of cancerous cells. Some of the key questions a histopathologist may report on can include:

  • Are there cancerous cells present?
  • What types of cancerous cells do the tissues appear to be?
  • What is the percentage of cancerous cells present? This can help determine the treatment response.

This information can take time to view and collect. For example, a surgeon may take a biopsy of a known cancerous area and several lymph nodes to determine whether cancer has spread.

A histopathologist will look at the tissue sample and the lymph nodes, check how many cancerous cells are in each lymph node, and determine where those lymph nodes are.

How long do histopathology results take?

Histopathology results may require special preparations, such as applying chemicals or dyes to the tissue sample, which can take several days. Healthcare professionals may have to send the sample types to a separate laboratory as well, which can take time to review and report on.

However, in some instances, a histopathologist can view and diagnose a sample almost immediately after obtaining it. Doctors call a biopsy viewed during or closely after a surgical procedure a “frozen” section.

If you undergo a biopsy, ask your doctor about how long they think it will take before you receive results.

Was this helpful?

Medicare usually covers tests on tissue specimens, but your healthcare professional must certify the test is medically necessary. Most commonly, Medicare Part B covers this service. However, a Medicare-approved laboratory must review the tissue specimen for Medicare to cover the costs.

Most private insurance companies also cover this testing if your doctor certifies it as being medically necessary. However, it’s always a good idea to check with your insurance company first to limit your out-of-pocket costs.

A positive histopathology report means that atypical tissues are present. Typically, this might be a cancer diagnosis.

Finding out a histopathology report is positive for cancerous cells can be understandably life changing. For this reason, a doctor will usually review the report with you and help you interpret the findings. Sometimes, you may need further testing to truly determine the extent of cancerous cells.

While your doctor may not have all the answers right away, it’s important to understand whether your doctor gives you a specific diagnosis and your next steps in testing or treatment.

Getting help

Receiving a cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming, but you don’t need to navigate it alone. If you have any questions about your cancer or the best treatment, make sure to ask your doctor or oncology team. It may be helpful to make a list of the questions you have beforehand so you don’t forget anything.

You can also ask them about the best way to get mental health support. Ask if they know any local therapists that specialize in helping people with cancer, or support groups for those going through the same thing you are.

If you or a loved one need emergency mental health support and are in the United States, you can also contact the Crisis Lifeline by calling 988.

Was this helpful?

Histopathology is a precise practice that requires highly specialized training to differentiate between atypical and typical cells. These tests are especially valuable for cancer diagnosis.

If you undergo a tissue biopsy, your doctor will send the tissue sample for a histopathology review. Your doctor will receive the report and often talk with the histopathologist before reviewing the results with you.