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Man's suspected cancer tumor turns out to be toy he inhaled 40 years ago

This toy cone from a child's play set was removed from a man's airways; pictured with a 2.5mL syringe to illustrate size. Denny et al., BMJ Case Reports

A 47-year-old British man suspected of having lung cancer received some good — but certainly unexpected — news after doctors performed a procedure to investigate a mass in his lung.

The patient, whose name was not released, was a long-term smoker and suffered a cough for more than a year. 

But during a bronchoscopy, his doctors didn't detect any signs of cancer. Instead, they found a tiny Playmobil plastic traffic cone lodged in the man's airways — leading to a diagnosis called tracheobronchial foreign body (TFB) aspiration.

Doctors detail the unique case in the journal BMJ Case Reports.

According to the report, the patient remembered regularly playing with — and even swallowing — pieces of Playmobil sets during his childhood. He recalled being given the set on his seventh birthday, 40 years earlier.

The doctors successfully removed the tiny plastic cone with biopsy forceps.

Four months after the procedure, they reported that the man's cough had "almost entirely settled."

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

The doctors note that aspiration of small objects is more common in children than adults, and when it happens children are typically diagnosed within a week. In a small number of cases, it takes longer for symptoms to develop or get checked out.

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

They found only one previously reported case in a child and three cases in adults where an object had remained undetected for more than 20 years.

"Therefore, our patient is unique in enduring a TFB for more than 40 years and because this event occurred when he was only 7 years old," the authors say.

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