Atypia in breast pathology: what pathologists need to know

Pathology. 2022 Feb;54(1):20-31. doi: 10.1016/j.pathol.2021.09.008. Epub 2021 Dec 3.


Despite the importance of atypia in diagnosing and classifying breast lesions, the definition of atypia varies depending on the context, with a lack of consistent and objective criteria for assessment. Atypia in breast pathology may be cytonuclear and/or architectural with different applications and implications. Cytonuclear atypia is used to assist the distinction of various intraductal epithelial proliferative lesions including usual ductal hyperplasia (UDH) versus atypical ductal hyperplasia (ADH) or ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), and to grade DCIS. In invasive carcinoma, nuclear atypia (i.e., nuclear pleomorphism) is a component of the histological grading system. Stromal cell cytonuclear atypia is one of the key features used to distinguish fibroadenoma from phyllodes tumour (PT) and to classify PT as benign, borderline or malignant. Similarly, cytonuclear atypia is used in the evaluation of myoepithelial cell alterations in the breast. Architectural atypia is used to differentiate flat epithelial atypia (FEA) from ADH or DCIS. In addition to the inherent subjectivity in the interpretation of atypia, which presents as a morphological continuum reflecting a biological spectrum, the lack of standardisation in defining atypia augments diagnostic discordance in breast pathology, with potential implications for patient management. Evidence to date suggests that the traditional criteria used to assess atypia may require modification in the era of digital pathology primary diagnosis. This review aims to provide a comprehensive review of atypia in breast pathology with reference to inconsistencies, challenges and limitations.

Keywords: Breast cancer; WHO classification; atypia; tumour type.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Breast / pathology*
  • Breast Neoplasms* / diagnosis
  • Breast Neoplasms* / pathology
  • Carcinoma in Situ / diagnosis
  • Carcinoma in Situ / pathology
  • Carcinoma, Ductal, Breast / diagnosis
  • Carcinoma, Ductal, Breast / pathology
  • Carcinoma, Intraductal, Noninfiltrating / diagnosis
  • Carcinoma, Intraductal, Noninfiltrating / pathology
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Female
  • Fibroadenoma / diagnosis
  • Fibroadenoma / pathology
  • Humans
  • Hyperplasia / diagnosis
  • Hyperplasia / pathology
  • Neoplasm Grading
  • Neoplasm Staging
  • Pathologists
  • Phyllodes Tumor / diagnosis
  • Phyllodes Tumor / pathology
  • Precancerous Conditions / pathology
  • Stromal Cells / pathology