Intraoperative (frozen section) analysis of lung lesions (nodules, masses, ground-glass opacities) can occasionally be diagnostically challenging.


To describe selected pitfalls in thoracic frozen sections with a focus on the differential diagnosis between adenocarcinoma and its mimics, and to provide tips to prevent misinterpretation.

Data Sources.—

Peer-reviewed literature and the author’s experience.


A common challenge in thoracic frozen sections is the differential diagnosis between lung adenocarcinoma and its mimics. Diagnostic difficulties arise because mimics of adenocarcinoma often entrap reactive lung epithelium that can appear atypical on frozen section slides. Entities that can be misinterpreted as adenocarcinoma include ciliated muconodular papillary tumor/bronchiolar adenoma, hamartoma, inflammatory myofibroblastic tumor, and pulmonary Langerhans cell histiocytosis. Knowledge of the key clinical, radiologic, and histologic features of these entities can help prevent overdiagnosis of adenocarcinoma. Pathologic findings that facilitate the distinction between adenocarcinoma and its mimics at frozen section include the appearance and contour of the lesion at low magnification, growth patterns, cilia, stromal features, shape of the epithelial cells (cuboidal versus columnar), nuclear features of malignancy (crowding, hyperchromasia, irregular contours), and abruptness of the junction between the lesion and adjacent uninvolved lung. Knowledge of the clinical context, imaging findings, and the surgical consequence of the intraoperative diagnosis can also prevent diagnostic errors. Finally, since adenocarcinomas of the lung are often relatively bland and lack the stromal desmoplasia seen in adenocarcinomas of other organs, familiarity with the morphologic spectrum of lung adenocarcinomas at frozen section analysis is important.

This content is only available as a PDF.

Author notes

The author has no relevant financial interest in the products or companies described in this article.

Presented in part at the Tenth Princeton Integrated Pathology Symposium, on April 1, 2023.

Supplementary data