Posted on: April 20, 2015
The Pathologist: The Expert Behind the Scenes
By Dr. Thomas Higgins
When patients are being treated for cancer, they may not realize that there is a specialist who plays an incredibly vital role in their care. One whom they will never meet — a pathologist like myself — who will provide a firm diagnosis, analyze the type of cancer the patient has, and provides information to suggest a course of treatment. We’re behind the scenes, but our input is necessary for oncologists and surgeons in understanding the type of tumor they’re dealing with.
Tissue biopsies are sent to a pathology laboratory to be carefully scrutinized by pathologists. In most cases we’re not only able to verify whether the tissue is cancerous, we can diagnose whether the tumor is aggressive or slower growing, and what type of drug might be most effective against the cancer. For example, a breast tumor that tests positive for a protein known as HER2 can be very aggressive and is unlikely to respond to hormone treatment. However, there are drugs that have been developed specifically to target tumors with this marker, and I provide information that the oncologist uses to decide upon the patient’s protocol.
As you can imagine, the need to properly identify the cancer and fully characterize it so the right treatment is prescribed is critical. We may not be meeting face to face with patients, but each slide we examine represents a real person. That’s why pathologists are careful to eliminate the chance of any possible errors. I will often consult one of the other pathologists in our department to help ensure accuracy. Northern Westchester Hospital has four pathologists on staff and we help check each other’s work.
Pathologists also send all their diagnoses to a state and national database through our cancer registry that can help keep track of the incidence of cancer and cancer types around the country. What’s more, I submit many of my reports to researchers who are overseeing clinical trials at the hospital. We’re part of about a dozen trials testing different types of treatments and protocols.
So if you or a loved one get a pathology report that identifies the type of cancer you have and the drugs that might help overcome the disease, you’ll know that you have a pathologist on your side.
Thomas Higgins, MD is the Medical Director of Pathology at Northern Westchester Hospital.