When a California woman with cervical cancer underwent a body image scan, doctors noticed bright areas in her lymph nodes, which suggest that her cancer had spread.
Only after the surgery to treat the cancer did doctors realize that the real reasons for those bright spots, her tattoos.
The woman had recently been diagnosed with cervical cancer. In November 2012, her doctors requested the imaging scan to check to see if the cancer had metastasized to other parts of her body.
The doctors wanted a PET/CT fusion scan, which combines technology from both PET and CT scans and requires that patients receive an injection of a radioactive tracer that makes tumors appear as bright spots on the scan.
The scan showed not only the woman’s cervical tumor, but it also showed bright spots on the lymph nodes in her pelvis. The bright spots looked suspiciously like cancer metastases.
Once doctors examined cells from the woman’s lymph nodes under a microscope, they saw that the cells contained deposits of tattoo ink, not cancer. The women had more than 14 tattoos on her legs.
Thankfully the patient did not have any complications after her surgery and she was allowed to leave the hospital after three days. She is now doing very well and doesn’t have any evidence of cancer recurrence.
There have previously been reports of tattoo ink spreading to people’s lymph nodes and showing up on PET scans in patients with other cancers, including breast cancer and melanoma. However, this appears to be the first case reported in a patient with cervical cancer.
Luckily, this false scan did not change the doctors’ surgical plan.
However, it is important that doctors are aware that extensive tattoos could look like cancer on PET scans, because this could change the way patients are treated.