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.

A Trainee Abroad: One Cytopathology Fellow’s Experience at a Teaching Hospital in Rwanda

The University Teaching Hospital of Kigali (CHUK) is the largest hospital in its District of Nyarugenge and the biggest national referral hospital in the country of Rwanda, with a 565 hospital bed capacity and 6 operating theaters. It is located in the heart of the capital of the country, Kigali, contributing to its easy accessibility by patients. Rwanda is a country of over 12.5 million people, with an estimated 70.2% of the population living in a rural setting. Per the World Bank, there is an estimated 1 physician per 10,000 people in-country. The government of Rwanda is focused on elevating the country from a low-income developing nation to a middle-income country with a robust health sector capable of ensuring a healthy people with adequate healthcare access. It provides universal healthcare, at a small cost, to all Rwandan citizens who aren’t provided health insurance through employment. In Rwanda there are a total of 14 practicing pathologists, which equates to approximately 1.1 pathologists per million people in the country. In contrast, within the United States there are an estimated 60 pathologists per million people. CHUK offers an array of outpatient, inpatient, surgical, and diagnostic medical services. Inpatient and outpatient services include surgery, accident & emergency, internal medicine, mental health, anesthesiology & critical care, gynecology, pediatrics, maternal & neonatology, ear/nose/throat, ophthalmology, neurosurgery, pediatric surgery, urology, nephrology, dialysis, oncology, and dermatology. Surgical services include general surgery, general pediatric surgery, neurosurgery, orthopaedics, ophthalmology, ear/nose/throat, and obstetrics/gynecology. Diagnostic services include ultrasound, digital x-ray, CT scan, and anatomic and clinical pathology services. In its current state, the hospital has a total of 18 divisions.

There are two facets to the pathology laboratory at CHUK: the Anatomic Pathology (AP) and the Clinical Pathology (CP) laboratories. Within the AP laboratory, also known as the histopathology laboratory, all surgical specimens are grossly examined by a pathology resident and/or pathologist, prepared by a pathology resident for processing, and processed by laboratory technicians into formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded tissue placed onto glass slides. These glass slides are then reviewed by both the pathology residents and the pathologists in order to render a diagnosis, which is communicated to the clinician in order to help direct appropriate patient management. Specimens reviewed at CHUK are predominantly “in-house” specimens generated by the surgeons and clinicians functioning within the walls of the institution. “Referral” specimens are a rarity and generally consist of small biopsies. Cytopathology specimens are also processed within the AP laboratory and include a mixture of fine needle aspiration (FNA) specimens, obtained by pathology residents via superficial FNA, as well as exfoliative cytology specimens such as effusions and urines collected by “in-house” clinicians. Cervical screening conventional pap smears are a rarity. Within the AP laboratory, Diff-Quik, Papanicolaou, and hematoxylin & eosin (H&E) staining was available for slides, as well as a limited panel of special stains: PAS-D, auramine, and a modified acid-fast stain. No immunohistochemistry was available on-site, though cases could be sent for free to nearby Butaro Hospital for IHC or consultation via digital slide scanning.

Regarding my experience at CHUK, I departed the United States on a Saturday evening and reached Kigali, Rwanda by 1AM the following Monday morning. On my first day at CHUK, I was introduced to the 5 anatomic pathology staff, 9 anatomic pathology residents, and the single visiting pathologist serving as a laboratory inspector conducting a mock inspection/assessment. I was given a tour of the pathology facilities as well as the entire hospital system.

There were two aspects to my primary job at CHUK: teaching the residents cytopathology and microscopic review of all live cytopathology cases received in the laboratory. Regarding resident education, there were four ways in which I interacted with the residents during my time to facilitate cytopathology education: lectures, multi-headed microscope unknown slide sessions (unknown case conference where I provided the residents with cases they had never seen before), multi-headed microscope “stump the chump” unknown slide sessions (where the residents presented me with unknown cases I had never seen before), and interactive practicals where we performed various hands-on aspects of cytopathology and general pathology practice.

In respect to lectures, I delivered a total of eight 1.5 hour powerpoint-based lectures covering the following topics: breast cytology, thyroid cytology, lymph node cytology, salivary gland cytology, urine cytology, effusion cytology, peritoneal washing cytology, and frozen section pathology (frozen section lecture presented as a combined effort with Dr. Raina Flores). For unknown slide sessions in which I presented cases to the residents, we had 6 sessions covering the following topics: breast, thyroid, salivary gland, urine, conventional pap, and cerebrospinal fluid. We completed a total of 5 “stump the chump” sessions, where residents gave me slides that I had never seen before and we discussed each case and its work-up as well as its associated differential diagnosis or final pathologic diagnosis at the multi-headed microscope. Topics covered included: breast, thyroid, salivary gland, lymph node, and effusions. Finally, with the assistance of “in-house” pathologists, I helped conduct 2 hands-on practicals with the residents: the first regarding fine needle aspiration technique and slide smearing technique (with Dr. Claire Nadyisaba) and the second regarding performance of frozen section intraoperative consultations using Leica CM1850 cryostats and cow liver (with Dr. Raina Flores).

The second of my duties, live cytopathology case review, was also performed at the multi-headed microscope with the residents each afternoon. On a given day, we would typically receive somewhere between 1 and 4 FNA consultations for which the residents would go to FNA clinic and perform the procedure. The laboratory also received various aspirated and exfoliative cytology specimens, such as pleural effusion and ascites fluids, from clinicians within the hospital system. In total, we reviewed 51 cytopathology cases together at the microscope. 27.5% were neoplastic, with 7.8% being malignant and 2% being lymphoma. 56.8% of cases were negative for malignancy, with 21.5% being inflammatory/infectious. In total, 9.8% of cases were interpreted as “atypical” and 5.9% of cases were non-diagnostic. Of the 51 cases, 21 (41.2%) were FNA consultations that I attended and the resident performed.

On my final day of work, I provided the residents with a 41-page cytology knowledge assessment (in PDF format) to complete at their leisure. This test covered the following topics: cervical and vaginal cytology (19 questions), urine and bladder cytology (11 questions), effusion cytology and peritoneal washings (13 questions), cerebrospinal fluid cytology (12 questions), breast cytology (8 questions), thyroid cytology (17 questions), salivary gland cytology (13 questions), and lymph node cytology (11 questions). Within the document, an answer key with associated detailed explanations was provided so it could serve as a learning aid/study guide for the trainees.  On my last workday, the residents were asked to evaluate their experience with the Cytopathology Module/Course. A total of 7 of 9 residents completed the evaluation. Regarding preparation and organization of different topics, all residents found the quality of the powerpoints to be “very good” or “excellent”. The quality of the practical sessions was rated as “good,” “very good” or “excellent by all residents and the entire module was given an overall rating of “very good” or “excellent” by all of the residents. The majority of residents felt their time was used effectively during this module and that the venues for theoretical and practical learning were appropriate. In the free-text areas for additional comments, suggestions for improvement included a longer duration (at least 4 weeks) of the module, more hands-on practical time, the opportunity for residents to present information, and more microscopy sessions. For additional topics to be covered, respiratory cytology was suggested. In overarching comments regarding their module experience, the residents felt the module was well-prepared, the teaching sessions were well-organized, and that the course was interesting and helpful.

Finally, though not within the confines of my assigned “duties”, I also spent a portion of each day acting as “consultant” to the on-site pathologists for challenging surgical pathology cases, offering opinions as able for various lesions that were challenging to classify on H&E morphology alone. I also served as a “second reviewer” for new malignant diagnoses being rendered in the laboratory, offering my name to be included in the report as a board certified pathologist who has laid eyes on the case and agrees with the interpretation. Examples of some interesting surgical pathology cases I saw in “consultation” included Wilms tumor (nephroblastoma), cystic partially differentiated nephroblastoma (CPDN), pleomorphic xanthoastrocytoma (PXA), sinonasal undifferentiated carcinoma, basaloid moderately-differentiated carcinoma of the uterine cervix, high-grade large cell lymphoma of the cervical lymph node, high-grade squamous intraepithelial lesion of the vulva arising within a condyloma acuminatum, and low-grade papillary urothelial carcinoma of the bladder. I also attend a single Tumor Board Multidisciplinary Conference with two residents and 1 staff pathologist in which a resident presented a case of mucinous moderately-differentiated adenocarcinoma of the colon transmurally invading adjacent ileum. It was interesting to hear the clinicians, pathologists, and radiologists interact in addressing quality of care, efficiency of care, and clinical decision-making. The time of initial presentation to the time of surgery was greater than 1 year for this patient.

My time spent at CHUK in Kigali, Rwanda was an invaluable experience. The work setting granted me the opportunity to expand my role as an academic educator. I was offered the opportunity to present as many lectures as possible to the resident trainees, participate as the leader of multi-headed microscope slide sessions, serve as a spearheading physician in laboratory services expansion efforts, and work as an ‘attending’ physician overseeing trainees’ performance of FNAs. It was an experience that demanded personal growth, via the assumption of roles that I am not privy to as a post-graduate medical education trainee in the United States. Additionally, I was exposed to a cytopathology and surgical pathology workload for a patient population quite dissimilar from the community I am used to serving. With limited ancillary testing capabilities, I returned to a more “pure” form of rendering pathologic diagnoses, based on H&E morphology alone rather than on the synthesis of cyto- and/or histomorphologic appearance coupled with various ancillary diagnostic testing data points. In conclusion, this was an experience that expanded my understanding of the ways in which I can be useful as a board certified anatomic and clinical pathologist interested in incorporating medical mission work into my clinical practice. Beyond arriving in countries without expansive pathology laboratory systems and simply doing the work, I can also pursue opportunities where I can help educate and shape burgeoning in-country pathologists who will then go on to have productive, hopefully decades-long careers in their country, serving their countrymen. This trip certainly expanded my understanding of the role of a “visiting” pathologist. This experience was made possible by the ASCP Trainee Global Health Fellowship Award. Thank you so much to the ASCP, Dr. Dan Milner, Alpa Pandya, and the CHUK pathology department for helping to facilitate this opportunity!

Image 1. Dinner with CHUK pathologists and pathology residents
Image 2. Frozen section training with CHUK pathology residents
Image 3. CHUK laboratory medicine building
Image 4. CHUK hospital
Image 5. CHUK hospital entrance
Image 6. Small “downtown” area near CHUK hosptial–Kwibuka (“to remember”) memorial in remembrance of the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide.
Image 7. Overlooking Kigali.
Image 8. Ferry ride to various neighborhoods in Kigali

-Kelsey McHugh, MD is a board certified anatomic and clinical pathologist, with cytopathology subspecialty certification, who is currently completing gastrointestinal, hepatic, and pancreatobiliary pathology subspecialty training. She anticipates graduating from the Cleveland Clinic Gastrointestinal, Hepatic, and Pancreatobiliary Pathology Fellowship in June 2020, after which she will remain at the Cleveland Clinic as a staff pathologist beginning July 2020.

In Favor of Co-Testing

Recently, Lablogatory interviewed R. Marshall Austin, MD, PhD, in regards to the benefits of using both liquid-based cytology and HPV testing to screen for cervical cancer. The interview below has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.


Hi, Dr. Austin. Thanks for joining us today. Can you tells us a bit about your background?

I consider myself a gynecological pathologist, which includes surgical pathology and cytology. I’ve been involved with cervical screening issues for quite some time. Going back to the 90s, and even before that with CLIA ’88. My PhD is in virology, which is relevant now with the all the HPV issues. I did my subspecialty training in GYN and breast pathology and cytology at the armed forces institute of pathology.

Over your career you’ve authored or co-authored over 80 papers relating to cervical cancer screening. What made you so interested in this field of study?

It was an area that became a hot topic with CLIA ’88. CLIA ’88 was precipitated by a Wall Street Journal expose on Pap smear screening in the United States, which was ironic because the Pap smear has been the most effective cancer screening test in the history of medicine. This drew me in, since it was my subspecialty area of interest. There had been technological advances in the field even though the Pap smear itself hadn’t changed that much since it was introduced during World War II. Computer-assisted screening, liquid-based cytology, HPV testing all really have dramatically changed the field.

What was your initial reaction when the US preventative services task force released their draft document on cervical cancer screening recommendation in September of 2017?

I thought it was a mistake. I wrote a letter why I thought so, and apparently a lot of other people did, too.

How integral was the pathology and medical community’s reaction to this draft document in changing the USPSTF’s recommendations to include co-testing?

I’m sure that the feedback had a cumulative impact. I’ve heard different views on what components were most instrumental.

What made you decide to perform the recent study that appears in AJCP?

I had read online at the end of last year a pre-publication paper published by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. I had seen their figures presented by Walter Kinney as early as October at a meeting in Amsterdam. I asked him where these figures available, and he said they were going to be published. I thought their results were probably different than what we would have seen in our own lab. So I thought we really need to look at our own data in the exact same format as the data presented in the JNCI. We were able to do that by about March.

Wow! That seems really fast, considering how large your data set is.

We have kind of an unusual set up here because I work with two information scientists here at the University of Pittsburg. We automatically have all of our data being taken from our LIS into a cervical screening model which we call the Pittsburgh Cervical Cancer Screening Model and we have over 13 years of data. So we’re in kind of a unique position to very quickly put our data into different types of formats. Agnieszka Onisko, the information scientist on the publication, was able to quickly look at our data and get it into the same format as the paper from Kaiser. Once I saw how different our results actually were, my goal was to get the paper out before the USPSTF report came out. We had our tables and figures by March and I submitted the manuscript to AJCP in early May.

Let’s talk a little bit about the benefits of cotesting, and some of the downsides.

Well, the reason I always tell people, the reason that women get screened is because they don’t want to get cancer and they don’t want to die of cancer. Getting screened isn’t a pleasant experience, necessarily, but women don’t get screened because they’re worried about dysplasia or some other condition. They’re worried about cancer. The other thing that’s always been misunderstood is the limitations of screening. Screening was effectively sold to the American public by the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute, and while it was an effective campaign, it basically left women with the impression that if they get screened, they won’t get cancer. Although cervical cancer screening has been the most effective cancer screening program ever, it’s never been perfect. A paper out of England in 2016 had a sophisticated analysis about the effects of cytology screening on cancer rates in England. It estimated that about 70% of cancer mortality was being eliminated with screening, and could potentially be as high as 83%, which still isn’t 100%. So when women get cancer, they get upset. My general philosophy has always been that we should do as much as we can to minimize cancer in the screened population because that’s what the public wants and expects.

The disadvantages of cotesting is one, it adds costs. Two tests cost more than one, after all. And also, cotesting adds the potential for more red flags that require potential investigation that can increase the number of procedures. Having said that, and having been involved in a number of years especially in cases where litigation is involved the public wants and expects the most protection possible. So, to me, the extra cost is still in line with what the public wants: the maximal possible protection.