What to know

Topic: What to know about mammograms if you have a tattoo

While some with upper body tattoos have ink in their lymph nodes that looks like calcium deposits, the doctors stress it’s not harmful.

For many, getting a tattoo seems fairly harmless outside of a little pain and perhaps some later regret. But those upper body tattoos linger in ways one might not expect — the ink can actually show up on mammograms. As Generation X and Millennials have started undergoing breast cancer screenings, radiologists have been spotting pigment in lymph nodes more often.

“It’s so common actually that we now ask every women if they’ve had a tattoo,” Dr. Margarita Zuley, director of breast imaging at UPMC Magee Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh, told TODAY. “More women are getting tattoos than before. And as younger populations are aging into mammograms, which is for 40 and older, we are seeing more and more tattoos.”

An Ipsos poll from 2019 found that the number of Americans with tattoos has increased since 2012. About 30% of all Americans have one tattoo, which is up from 21% in 2012. But the number of people under 55 with tattoos is even higher. Thirty-six percent of people ages 35 to 54 have one tattoo. The number is even greater for people ages 18 to 34 with 40% of them having at least one.

Radiologists have certainly noticed this trend and see more people with tattoo pigment — which looks like white dots — in their lymph nodes. Mammograms don’t just create an image of the breast. They also provide a snapshot of what’s going on in the lymph nodes in the armpit.

“It’s important to include the lymph nodes because if there is a breast cancer, we want to know if it spread,” Dr. Susan Summerton, an associate professor of clinical radiology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, told TODAY. “Sometimes lymph nodes change and we see little white dots in them, which is typically what we call calcium deposits.”

Topic Discussed: What to know about mammograms if you have a tattoo

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