Beggars CAN Be Choosers

There is a fine line between obtaining enough cellular material for every ancillary study in the book and risking harm to the patient. So how do we ensure that the patient remains safe, but doesn’t need to come back for a second biopsy due to insufficient material?

Hi! I’m Taryn, a Specialist in Cytotechnology at Fox Chase Cancer Center and a medical laboratory professional who thrives on patient advocacy. Welcome to my first post for Lablogatory! Each month, I’d like to share a story of how the middleman/woman cytotechnologist becomes the biggest campaigner for the patient. Typically, I’ll be posting case studies of rare tumors and how we arrived at the diagnosis, but I’ll start with how to guarantee that we have ample material to provide a comprehensive result for both the patient and clinicians.

 It’s a fight, to say the least. With personalized medicine at the forefront of our cancer center’s mission, we need ALL of the material for any and every ancillary test one can think of, from immunohistochemistry to flow cytometry to molecular diagnostics. That sounds like a lot because it is. From my experience, many clinicians feel that just because cytotechnologists can make a satisfactory adequacy statement on a Rapid On-Site Assessment (ROSE) of a Fine Needle Aspiration Biopsy (FNA), and the pathologists can make a definitive diagnosis based on cytomorphology alone, that means they have obtained sufficient material. For years, that was a valid thought. But now that we have taken various leaps from diagnostic to prognostic and now theranostic approaches, “enough” for cytomorphology is nowhere near “enough” for the patient’s clinical outlook.

As a cytotechnologist present on FNA’s, I have been called “greedy” and a “beggar” by clinicians on more than one occasion. No hard feelings, I promise. As long as the anatomical location of the biopsy does not pose more risk than reward, rest assured, I’m going for the gold medal. Starting out, I obtain one or two fine needle aspiration passes from the radiologist, pulmonologist, gastroenterologist, etc., and from each pass, I prepare one smear to be stained on-site via Diff-Quik (Modified Wright-Giemsa stain) and the mirror image smear fixed in 95% ethanol to be Papanicolaou stained later in the lab. The residual material in the needle is rinsed in Hank’s Balanced Salt Solution (A.K.A. Gatorade for cells) and later spun down into a pellet for a Formalin-Fixed Paraffin-Embedded (FFPE) Cell Block. I look at the Diff-Quik stained smears under the microscope and tell the clinician if the material I have is adequate, scant, or inadequate. This is where it gets interesting.

Clinician: “Adequate. So, we’re done? Okay.”
Cytotechnologist: “The smears are adequate, but I need more material for the Cell Block. Can I have two more passes? And a core biopsy, as requested on the presentation state.”
Clinician: “But you have enough. We already know the patient has lung cancer. You don’t need anymore. I’ll give you a core biopsy, but no more fine needles.”
Cytotechnologist: “I need at least two more needles. The core biopsy material will be saved for molecular. The ordering physician wants to know if the patient’s EGFR-mutated tumor also carries a T790M mutation to see if they are eligible for this therapy. But I also need additional needle passes for the Cell Block to prove that the immunohistochemical profile is the same as the original material. If there is a small cell carcinoma component in the metastasis, that changes things.”
Clinician: “Fine. Pathology is so greedy.”

Okay, so we have definitely progressed into a new era. Many newly trained clinicians understand the need for ample material, but this conversation still occurs on a daily basis. Don’t get me wrong, the veteran clinicians (from my snippet) are remarkable. They can find a needle in a haystack, hit a moving target time and time again, and provide me with a perfect tumor-rich sample. But alas, in trying to educate and advocate, I admit- I do come off as a beggar. The key in our ROSE role is to not back down though. Cytotechnologists remain strong in their convictions, fighting for the patient, so that not only do we have enough cellular material for all of the necessary ancillary studies the first time around, but that hopefully the first time around is the ONLY time around.

We’ll chat soon!


Taryn Waraksa, MS, SCT(ASCP)CM, CT(IAC), has worked as a cytotechnologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, since earning her master’s degree from Thomas Jefferson University in 2014. She is an ASCP board-certified Specialist in Cytotechnology with an additional certification by the International Academy of Cytology (IAC). She is also a 2020 ASCP 40 Under Forty Honoree.

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