As more and more people get vaccinated against COVID-19, more potential side effects have emerged. One is swollen lymph nodes and while that’s what you’d expect when an immune response is triggered, it’s exactly what you don’t want to see when screening for breast cancer.
Dr. Jessica Burgers, a breast surgeon specializing in hematology oncology at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, knows exactly what to look for when screening for cancer.
“One of the things that’s a tipoff for cancer in the lymph nodes is if the lymph nodes are looking swollen or enlarged,” Burgers explained to CBS Miami.
But a lot of people may be experiencing swollen or enlarged lymph nodes these days because they’re a common side effect of the COVID vaccine.
Dr. Burgers noticed it firsthand after she was vaccinated.
“It wasn’t until the second shot that I did actually experience a side effect that we are becoming more aware of where I had some swelling or soreness in my armpit area, or what we in the medical field call the axilla,” she recalled.
She says it’s a normal response to a vaccine because the lymphatic system houses immune cells and the point of the vaccine is to initiate an immune response. Swollen lymph nodes, particularly in the armpit area, can also be a sign of breast cancer.
“But radiographically, these can appear very similar. So it can be alarming for a radiologist who isn’t aware of the context that a patient had a recent vaccine,” she said.
It’s an issue coming up more and more in her own practice and could lead to an increase in false positives.
“I’d say about once a week we’re getting reports and so it’s prompting me that when I’m calling my patients with their imaging results, one of the first questions I ask is ‘Did you get the vaccination?'”
Dr. Burgers says if you were recently vaccinated and are otherwise healthy and not experiencing any breast concerns, you should try to delay your mammogram a bit.
The Society of Breast Imaging recommends scheduling your mammogram either before your first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine or about four to six weeks following your second dose, if possible.
“That being said, if a patient is being worked up for a current breast complaint, this should not deter a woman from getting her mammogram. She just needs to make sure she lets the doctor and technologists at the imaging facility be aware that she had the vaccine and what arm was used for that vaccination.”
Dr. Burgers says if the swelling is vaccine-related, it should resolve itself within two months. If it doesn’t, you should definitely follow up with your healthcare provider.