A woman in Australia came in with symptoms that all pointed to cancer. But when she was operated on, surgeons found that she had a reaction to years-old tattoo ink.
The 30-year-old patient, who remained unidentified, came in for a checkup on small lumps under her arms. Doctors found enlarged lymph nodes in her chest and in the roots of her lungs, as well. The initial suspicion was lymphoma, a kind of cancer that attacks the lymphatic system, which takes away toxins and other waste materials from the body, The Washington Post reports.
Christian Bryant, one of the doctors on the case and a hematologist at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, said, “Ninety-nine times out of 100, [this] will be lymphoma.” However, when the enlarged nodes were removed, the doctors were surprised to discover amassed cells filled with a dark coloring.
It turned out that the woman did not have cancer, and most likely had a hypersensitive reaction to ink from her tattoos. According to the authors of a report on the case, tattoos can cause “acute complications, such as pain, infection and hypersensitivity,” including enlarged lymph nodes that may “masquerade as malignant disease.”
The doctors knew that something had triggered a response in the patient’s immune system, but were unaware of what it was, or why it had taken 15 years – which was when she got her first tattoo, said Bryant. “I think there’s absolutely no way to know how common it is,” he said.
Most people who have tattoos have absolutely no problems.
The woman found the lumps under her arms after self-examination, and did not report any fever, night sweats, trouble breathing, weight loss, or any other symptoms linked to lymphoma.
However, she did have a black-ink tattoo covering her back, and she had another added on her shoulder. She told doctors that the tattoos would sometimes itch and become swollen, but that her skin would soon return to normal.
“We believe that this case highlights the importance of a careful tattoo history and physical examination,” the authors on the case report said.
The report was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.