The nomenclature of colorectal adenomas, dysplasia and malignant polyps can be confusing. Unfortunately,
there is no universally accepted nomenclature.1 Most surgical pathologists appear to apply variations of
the 1989 World Health Organization (WHO) terminology.2 According to this system, the terms dysplasia,
adenocarcinoma in-situ, intramucosal adenocarcinoma and invasive adenocarcinoma are acceptable and each has
a precise meaning when applied to colorectal polyps. Appropriate patient care requires that the
endoscopist, surgeon and surgical pathologist understand the significance of each of these terms.
I have used the following criteria which are based on the 1989 WHO. All adenomas have at least low-grade
epithelial dysplasia. Without dysplasia, adenoma could not be distinguished from normal colonic mucosa.
Low-grade dysplasia is characterized by a slight decrease in the amount of intracellular mucin, mild nuclear
enlargement with hyperchromasia with some nuclear stratification, and an increased number of mitoses
figures. With increasing degrees of dysplasia (low-grade to high-grade) there is progressive loss of
intracellular mucin, progressive nuclear enlargement with stratification and a loss of nuclear polarity.
Adenocarcinoma in-situ describes the next step in the dysplasia-carcinoma sequence. Here, the atypical
glands assume a complex cribriform or back-to-back gland configuration but the basement membrane remains
intact. Some consider carcinoma in-situ as part of the spectrum of high-grade dysplasia and report both
under the same term.3 When carcinoma cells infiltrate into the lamina propria and/or muscularis mucosae
only, terms such as high-grade dysplasia and carcinoma in-situ are technically no longer accurate (because
both require an intact basement membrane) and the term intramucosal adenocarcinoma may be used.2
Finally, when carcinoma cells have invaded the submucosa (or beyond) the lesion is labeled invasive
adenocarcinoma. Invasion of the submucosa is invariably associated with an infiltrative pattern to
neoplastic glands associated with tumor desmoplasia. This tumor desmoplasia is extremely helpful in
recognizing invasion (defined as infiltration of at least the submucosa) especially in small biopsy
The nomenclature controversy principally centers on the observation that in the colon, infiltrating
carcinoma cells do not become clinically significant (i.e. able to metastasize) until they have invaded the
submucosa.4,5 Only polyps containing invasive adenocarcinoma require a therapeutic decision on the part
of the clinician. Adenoma (adenoma with dysplasia), adenocarcinoma in-situ and even intramucosal
adenocarcinoma lack metastatic capability and are adequately treated by polypectomy alone.5 As a result,
some pathologists advocate modification of the nomenclature to account for clinical behavior.1 Although
the 1989 WHO accepted and defined two (low-grade, high-grade) or three grades (mild, moderate, severe) of
dysplasia, carcinoma in-situ and intramucosal carcinoma, they recommended a similar behavior-based
modification for intramucosal carcinoma stating; "… intramucosal adenocarcinoma of the colon has not been
shown to metastasize, and for this reason ' carcinoma in-situ' is more appropriate. To prevent potential
confusion, the term 'intramucosal carcinoma' is best avoided in the large bowel".2
The 2000 version of the WHO classification added little clarification and introduced additional and in my
opinion, confusing terminology. The authors state that the defining feature for colorectal adenocarcinoma
is invasion through the muscularis mucosae into the submucosa. This is something all can agree upon.
However, once adenocarcinoma has been so defined, worrisome lesions not fulfilling the criteria for
adenocarcinoma become difficult to describe. For example, the WHO attempts to define adenocarcinoma in-situ
and intramucosal adenocarcinoma as lesions with morphologic characteristics of "adenocarcinoma" confined to
the epithelium or that "invade" the lamina propria alone and lack invasion through the muscularis mucosae.
The WHO goes on to state that these lesions have virtually no risk of metastasis. According to the WHO, " …
high-grade intraepithelial neoplasia is more appropriate than adenocarcinoma in-situ and that intramucosal
neoplasia is more appropriate than intramucosal adenocarcinoma". The WHO believes that use of these terms
will help avoid overtreatment. The problems I have with this classification are many. The loose use of the
term "invasion" to describe lesions that are not by definition invasive adenocarcinoma is confusing. The
lesser lesion of high-grade intraepithelial neoplasia sounds worse than the term used to describe
intramucosal adenocarcinoma (intramucosal neoplasia). Furthermore, adenoma, strictly speaking is an
intraepithelial or intramucosal neoplasm.
The latest effort to reach consensus (largely between Eastern [Japanese] and Western Pathologists)7,8,9
resulted in the Vienna classification of the gastrointestinal neoplasia7 presented in Table 1.
VIENNA CLASSIFICATION OF GASTROINTESTINAL NEOPLASIA
|1||Negative for neoplasia/dysplasia|
|2||Indefinite for neoplasia/dysplasia|
|3||Non-invasive low-grade neoplasia (low grade adenoma/dysplasia)|
|4||Non-invasive high-grade neoplasia|
- High grade adenoma/dysplasia
- Non-invasive carcinoma (CIS)
- Suspicious for invasive carcinoma
- Intramucosal carcinoma
- Submucosal carcinoma or beyond
Problems with the Vienna system include: a) the loose application of the word invasion, b) category IV
"non-invasive" high-grade neoplasia including potentially dangerous lesions (suspicious for invasive
adenocarcinoma) and; c) Category V "invasive neoplasms" including intramucosal adenocarcinoma which is known
to be clinically benign in the colon. It is unlikely that a numerical system without clinical correlation
will ever gain widespread acceptance.
A Biased and Pragmatic View on Nomenclature and Reporting
As modified from the 1989 WHO classification described above, low-grade dysplasia, high-grade dysplasia,
adenocarcinoma in-situ, intramucosal adenocarcinoma exist and can be recognized by pathologists. This
nomenclature is attractive because it can be applied throughout the entire gastrointestinal tract. If one
chooses to diagnose high-grade dysplasia, adenocarcinoma in-situ, and intramucosal adenocarcinoma in
colorectal biopsy specimens, I specifically mention that these lesions lack metastatic potential in the
Since infiltrating carcinoma cells in a colorectal polyp do not become clinically significant (i.e., able to
metastasize) until they have invaded the submucosa,4,5,11-38 only a polyp containing invasive
adenocarcinoma should be considered malignant. Only invasive adenocarcinoma requires a therapeutic
decision. Therefore the presence or absence of invasive adenocarcinoma should be specifically mentioned in
the pathology report.
Mistakes pathologists make in reporting colorectal adenoma, dysplasia, and malignant polyps occur in three
major categories: 1) the pathology report is not clear. (Nonspecific or noncommittal terms are used or the
presence or absence of invasion is not clearly stated); 2) mispositioned glands (pseudocarcinomatous
invasion) are misinterpreted as invasive carcinoma. 3) the margin of excision is either not identified or
not commented upon.
A common problem concerns differentiating invasive carcinoma in a colorectal polyp from pseudocarcinomatous
invasion. Pseudocarcinomatous invasion describes a situation in which neoplastic glands of the adenoma have
been mispositioned, presumably by trauma, into or beneath the muscularis mucosae.39-47
Pseudocarcinomatous invasion is relatively common, having been reported in 3% to 10% of resected polyps
.39,41,42 Distinguishing this epithelial misplacement from invasive adenocarcinoma can be difficult.
Reported series of "malignant polyps" have included, and indeed even illustrated polyps with
pseudocarcinomatous invasion as examples of invasive carcinoma associated with adenoma.40 Histologic
features favoring pseudoinvasion include; lack of an infiltrative pattern, lack of tumor desmoplasia,
presence of lamina propria around the mispositioned glands, lack of increased atypia in mispositioned
epithelium as compared to the surface epithelium of the adenoma, and the presence of hemorrhage and/or
hemosiderin deposits in nearby connective tissue.
Occasionally, the misplaced glands of pseudocarcinomatous invasion can become cystic and can be associated
with dissection of mucus into the connective tissue of the polyp stalk. Here the distinction between
mucinous adenocarcinoma and misplaced glands can be difficult.39-48 Table 2 illustrates histologic
features that aid in this differential. Remember that examination of additional sections can help in
difficult cases because almost all mucinous adenocarcinomas contain foci of typical nonmucinous-type
DIFFERENTIAL FEATURES BETWEEN DISSECTING MUCUS
OF PSEUDOCARCINOMATOUS INVASION & INVASIVE
|Feature ||Pseudoinvasion ||Invasive Mucinous Adenocarcinoma|
|Shape of mucous pools ||Rounded ||Irregular, infiltrating|
|Location of epithelium ||Periphery of pool ||Floating in pool|
|Configuration of epithelium ||Single often discontinuous layer, basal polarity of nuclei||Cellular piling up, complex glandular proliferation, gland in gland configuration|
|Cytologic features ||Dysplasia similar to surface adenoma ||Atypia more pronounced|
|Tumor desmoplasia ||Absent ||Usually present|
|Hemorrhage and hemosiderin deposition||Usually present ||Usually absent|
|Supporting lamina propria ||Sometimes present ||Absent|
Malignant Colorectal Polyps - Patient Management
A rational decision concerning subsequent management of a patient with an endoscopically removed malignant
colorectal polyp (one containing invasive carcinoma) is based upon weighing the chances of finding residual
or metastatic cancer during a follow-up surgical resection (whom do I help?) against the risk of surgical
mortality and morbidity (whom do I hurt?).
Some investigators have advocated subsequent major surgical resection for all patients.49 Currently,
however, almost all surgeons and gastroenterologists have embraced a more conservative approach using a
number of gross and histologic features as "indications" for follow-up colectomy.47 These include
sessile growth,5,12 residual villous adenoma, a short stalk (less than 3 mm),13 "stalk" invasion,14
"level 4" invasion,5, 12 lymphatic or vascular permeation,34 lack of residual adjacent adenoma
(polypoid carcinoma), poor differentiation15,16,32,34 and invasive carcinoma at or near the margin of
The Cleveland Clinic experience16,32 parallels that of St. Mark's Hospital in London15,19 in that use
of two features appears to identify a group of patients likely to avoid an adverse outcome (residual or
metastatic carcinoma in a subsequent colectomy specimen or in five-year clinical follow-up). In these
studies, the group of patients in the "favorable histologic group" (well or moderately differentiated
adenocarcinoma with a 2 mm tumor-free margin of resection in the polypectomy specimen) experienced no
adverse outcome and are considered as adequately treated by polypectomy alone. Similar therapeutic
recommendations have been adopted by the American College of Gastroenterology.18 Their guidelines
consider colonoscopic polypectomy definitive treatment for a patient with a malignant polyp if the following
criteria are fulfilled: 1) the polyp is considered completely excised at endoscopy, 2) the specimen is
properly processed in the pathology laboratory, 3) the cancer is not poorly differentiated, 4) there is no
histologic evidence of vascular or lymphatic involvement, and 5) the resection margin is not involved by
The presence of lymphatic or venous invasion has been proposed as an indication for follow-up colectomy
.5,13,17,24,25,29,34,49 However, only a few malignant polyps with these features have been reported and
almost all have had positive margins, grade-III invasive carcinoma, or both.35 We believe that
lymphatic/venous invasion is not a reliable criterion because the distinction of true invasion from
retraction artifact is frequently difficult. Cooper et al. encountered significant interobserver variation
in assessing this feature.34 Furthermore, no guidelines exist that establish the extent to which a
pathologist must go to diagnose lymphatic/venous invasion (e.g., number of sections or use of immunostains).
We believe that you can successfully group patients into high-risk and low-risk groups without examining
lymphatic or venous invasion by using margin status and grade of invasive adenocarcinoma.32
Therapeutic recommendations are difficult to make based upon any one or two studies because of low patient
numbers. Therefore, Table 3 lists the major studies of endoscopic polypectomy for malignant polyps. Note
that in the "favorable histologic group" the chance of finding residual or metastatic cancer in a subsequent
colon resection specimen or during the follow-up period is about one percent. Weighing this against the
published operative mortality rates for colectomy, that range between 2% to 8%,28-30 it would appear that
subsequent major surgery should be avoided in this "favorable histologic group." At the Cleveland Clinic we
consider these patients adequately treated by polypectomy alone.16,32
ENDOSCOPICALLY REMOVED MALIGNANT COLORECTAL POLYPS:
FREQUENCY OF CANCER AT SURGERY OR FOLLOW-UP
|Cancer at Surgery or Follow-up|
|1st Author ||# of Polyps||Total #||# in the|
|Chantereau (29) ||59 ||3 ||0|
|Christie (19) ||70 ||3 ||0|
|Cooper (13) ||56 ||9 ||0|
|Cranley (16) ||40 ||10 ||0|
|Coverlizza (38)a ||50 ||5 ||0|
|Cunningham (31) ||36 ||2 ||0|
|Fried (20) ||22 ||0 ||0|
|Geraghty (17)b ||21 ||1 ||0|
|Hackelsberger (35)||86 ||8 ||1****|
|Kodaira (21) ||7 ||2 ||1**|
|Kyzer (12) ||42 ||4 ||0|
|Langer (22) ||23 ||6 ||1***|
|Moore (36) ||54 ||5 ||1****|
|Morson (15) ||60 ||3 ||0|
|Netzer (33) ||32 ||5 ||0|
|Nivatvongs (14) ||23 ||2 ||0|
|Richards (27) ||80 ||10 ||3****|
|Rossini (23) ||31 ||0 ||0|
|Shatney (24) ||28 ||1 ||0|
|Speroni (26) ||30 ||2 ||0|
|Volk (32) ||47 ||10 ||0|
|Whitlow (37) ||59 ||4 ||1|
|Wolff (25) ||46 ||8 ||2**|
| ||1,002 ||103 (10%) ||10 (1%)|
|* ||Excision complete plus (a) cancer not close (< 2 mm) to margin, (b) not grade III.
|** ||Assessment of resection line not stated.
|*** ||Grade and distance from margin not stated.
|****||Distance from margin not clearly stated and may have been less than 2 mm.
|(a) ||Some may have been reported in reference 23.
|(b) ||Report details experience with 81 malignant polyps but|
60 were previously reported in Reference 15.
If a decision for subsequent colon resection is made, we perform the standard recommended cancer operation
because cancer was the indication for surgery. In Table 3, notice that the highest chance of an adverse
outcome is approximately 10%. Therefore, finding no residual carcinoma in a follow-up resection specimen is
the rule rather than the exception and does not indicate an inadequate dissection by the pathologist.
Specimen Handling and Reporting
Since evaluation of the resection line is so critical to patient management, proper handling of the
polypectomy specimen is of utmost importance.16,30,32 We advocate placing the polyp immediately is
adequate. We prefer Hollande's solution because it better preserves the morphology and penetrates the
surface more quickly, allowing trimming after as little as 20 minutes of fixation. For polyps with a stalk,
we trim on either side of the stalk as illustrated in Fig. 1. The polyp with stalk can be embedded in a
block, maintaining the correct anatomic relationship. For polyps without stalks (sessile growths or those
where the stalk has retracted), we look for the effects of the diathermy burn on the gross specimen. This
will appear as a lighter-colored area or defect on the external surface of the polyp. We carefully trim on
either side of this defect (Fig. 2). We then microscopically examine a minimum of two to three
step-sections stained with hematoxylin and eosin from each block.
In the pathology report, the presence or absence of invasive carcinoma must clearly be stated. Tumor
differentiation must be noted. The resection line must be identified and assessed, and the status of that
resection line must be clearly stated in the final report.
While it is clear that there is no place for crusading zeal in advising surgery, the treating physician must
individualize the decision for follow up colectomy weighing the estimated cancer recurrence risk against the
predicted operative morbidity and mortality while considering the patients own attitudes.30 Furthermore,
advancements in laparoscopic segmental resection of the colon could drastically reduce the morbidity and
mortality of operative resection which now constitutes the major contraindication for surgery. This new
surgical technique may require future reassessment of our current management recommendations.
* Figures 1 and 2 reproduced with permission from: Cranley JP, Petras RE, Carey WD, Paradis K, Sivak MV.
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