OCT 03, 2017 3:27 PM PDT

Diagnosed: Swallowed Toy, Not Lung Cancer

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham

Swallowed toy cone | Image: British Medical Journal

A British man is quite literally breathing a little easier after finding out that he doesn’t have lung cancer. Rather, his false ‘lung tumor’ alarm turned out to be a traffic cone toy that he swallowed 40 years ago.

The 47-year-old man initially went to the doctor for a bout of pneumonia. Even after antibiotic treatment, the man continued to have a nagging, phlegmy cough that wouldn’t subside. Given the man’s 30-year history of smoking, he was sent to a lung specialist for an X-ray. This test revealed a mass, which doctors grimly suspected to be a lung tumor.

To confirm their suspicions, doctors performed a bronchoscopy – a procedure where they insert a camera attached to flexible tube to examine the airways.

Instead of finding a tumor mass, doctors found a plastic toy cone, specifically a Playmobil traffic cone from a toy set. After removal of what doctors call a tracheobronchial foreign body (TFB), the man’s symptoms noticeably subsided within months.

"On a positive note, his symptoms improved markedly and he finally found his longlost Playmobiltraffic cone in the very last place he would look," the authors wrote.

Beyond being relieved that he doesn’t have cancer, the man was reportedly unsurprised that the toy was found in his body, as he remembers a habit of swallowing toys in his childhood. He even “recalled being given his Playmobil set for this seventh birthday and believes he aspirated the toy traffic cone soon after,” per the report.

While doctors are no stranger to finding toys or foreign objects in bodies, the man’s case is unique in that it took 40 years for the object to trigger problems and be found.

"However, a case in which the onset of symptoms occurs so long after initial aspiration is unheard of in the literature," they write.

Usually, when a foreign object is swallowed, it ends up in the stomach. And if small enough, it will be excreted out of the body along with other waste. In the man’s case, doctors think he inhaled the toy rather than swallowing it, which would explain why the toy ended in his lungs. As for why symptoms took 40 years to surface, doctors think his young lungs were able to adapt to the foreign object and absorbed into the mucosal lining.

With the 40-year-old toy found, the man has unknowingly beat out four other cases (one child, and 3 adults), where a foreign object has remained undetected in the body for 20 years.

Additional sources: Newsweek, Live Science

About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
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