Doctors recommend patients schedule their mammograms before receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, or skip the two appointments after some women mistake swollen lymph nodes for breast lumps.
These swollen lymph nodes, which are a side effect of the COVID-19 vaccine, can also appear on mammograms and other types of imaging scans, according to experts.
“There have been some situations where the patient got a mammogram and it was on the mammogram,” said Dr. Harold Burstein, breast oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
According to the National Cancer Institute, lymph nodes are specialized tissues in the body’s immune system that contain white blood cells that help fight infection and disease. They’re usually the size of a lima bean and all over the body, Burstein said, but the most famous lymph nodes are in the armpit, neck, and groin areas.
Those that are under the armpits are most likely to swell up after vaccination because they are closest to the injection site. They could swell just a few days after vaccination and last for up to 12 weeks. In addition, the vaccine should not cause abnormalities in the breast itself, only under the armpit.
However, health experts emphasize that this is perfectly normal as increased inflammation suggests that antibodies are protecting the body from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
“This is a normal immune response to an effective vaccine,” said Burstein. “It is to be expected. It is a desirable consequence of the vaccine. “
Other vaccines trigger a similar response, such as vaccines for influenza and human papillomavirus. Some experts speculate that this is more common when more people are vaccinated against COVID-19 at the same time.
The two mRNA vaccines approved for the disease are highly effective. They are known to cause other side effects such as mild fever, chills, headache, and fatigue.
It is possible that the potent mRNA vaccines cause swollen lymph nodes more often than other vaccines because they appear to cause more side effects, said Dr. Jessica Leung, professor of diagnostic radiology and vice chairman of breast imaging at the University of Texas, MD Anderson Cancer Center.
“But with the non-mRNA vaccines (like Johnson & Johnson) it will be interesting and educational to see what happens,” she said.
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Although swollen lymph nodes could mimic an affected lump during a self-exam or mammogram, it’s still important to both get the COVID-19 vaccine and screen for breast cancer, Leung said.
To avoid confusion, she recommends getting screened before vaccination. If this is not possible, the MD Anderson Cancer Center guidelines should wait about four to six weeks after receiving the vaccine.
“Don’t wait too long after six weeks,” said Leung. If rescheduling your mammogram isn’t possible, “get your mammogram anyway, but let your providers know you had the COVID vaccine in that arm at that point.”
Most providers can tell the difference between a swollen lymph node and something of concern, especially knowing that the patient has been vaccinated against COVID-19 in the past few weeks.
Leung and Burstein know how difficult it is to get a COVID-19 vaccine because supplies are still limited. You therefore advise against postponing your appointment for a vaccination.
“(But) don’t forget your mammogram either, because cancer is still a big problem in this country and this is a test … that can potentially save a woman’s life from breast cancer,” Leung said.
Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.
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