Traveling Black Ink From 15-Year-Old Tattoo Raises Cancer Fears

It wasn't cancer, but it sure looked like it.

Getty Images / Gabe Ginsberg

There’s no strong evidence that tattoos give you cancer, but they could create symptoms that look an awful lot like cancer. The delayed after-effects of tattoos appear to have caused an Australian woman to experience swollen lymph nodes that made her doctors think she might have lymphoma, a type of cancer that affects the lymphatic system. And while her case is frightening, frankly, it’s not that shocking.

There’s no easy way to tell you this: Tattoos affect more than just your skin. That’s right. Scientists announced last month that nanoparticles in tattoo ink can migrate around your body and accumulate in your lymph nodes, so this strange case study should come as no great surprise to anyone who read about that study.

This strange case study, published Tuesday in Annals of Internal Medicine, began when the 30-year-old woman noticed lumps under her armpits — one of the most obvious symptoms of lymphoma.

Doctors discovered “numerous rubbery nontethered nodes up to 1.5 cm [0.6 inch] in diameter,” but no other signs that the woman had cancer. It turned out the lumps were not cancerous but seemed to have accumulated ink from the woman’s tattoos. We’ve included a picture of one of the woman’s removed lymph nodes below. Warning: It’s pretty gross. But if you’ve scrolled this far, you’ve probably already seen it anyway!

A 30-year-old Australian woman had this enlarged lump removed after the thought she might have lymphoma. Doctors suspect it is a result of tattoo ink pigments.

Annals of Internal Medicine

Inverse reported in September that tattoo ink pigments can migrate through the body by way of the lymphatic system, the system that transports white blood cells around the body to fight infections:

Unsettling as it may be for people with tattoos to learn that their ink isn’t staying put, it’s actually not that surprising that tattoo pigment particles can be found in the lymphatic system. When foreign matter like tattoo ink is traumatically inserted into the body, this system’s action kicks into high gear in its attempt to expel invaders.

The doctors report that the woman had two tattoos. “A large black-ink tattoo that had been present for 15 years covered her back. Another black-ink tattoo on her left shoulder was 2.5 years old,” they write. This kind of long-term effect from tattooing is a little more unusual than immediate complications that can arise, including infections from unsanitary equipment or (more commonly) improper care, allergic reactions to ink components, or inflammation at the tattoo site.

The September lymph node study indicated that some of the subjects they studied had enlarged lymph nodes, which is consistent with this case study. Interestingly, in this case, there was a reaction only in the lymph nodes and not in the skin.

“The case we describe is unique in that there was no skin reaction, only granulomatous change within the lymph nodes. In addition, no cutaneous, pulmonary, or systemic symptoms were observed to suggest systemic sarcoidosis,” the doctors report. They say that finding out about a patient’s tattoo history could help them better avoid misdiagnosis.

“We believe that this case highlights the importance of a careful tattoo history and physical examination.”

Nanoparticle scientists have an unsettling warning for people with tattoos. Check out this video to find out more.

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