Mammogram Screening after a COVID Vaccination
Getting a mammogram screening is one of the most important things you can do for your health, and so is getting a coronavirus vaccination. Doctors recommend undergoing both procedures to help prevent serious disease, such as advanced breast cancer and COVID, which could result in death. However, many doctors are recommending that women put off their mammogram for a few weeks after receiving the COVID vaccine.
Swollen Lymph Nodes – Is it a Side Effect of COVID Vaccination or Sign of Early Stage Breast Cancer?
Some doctors worry that getting a mammogram too soon after a COVID vaccination may cause unnecessary concern about swollen lymph nodes, which is a common side effect of the vaccination using mRNA COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Unfortunately, swollen lymph nodes in the armpit are also a sign of breast cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes.
Cancer is a disease characterized by the rapid growth of unhealthy body cells. Like other types of cancer cells, breast cancer cells can spread from their original location in the breast to other organs and tissues in the body. As it spreads, abnormal breast cancer cells generally first appear in the lymph nodes – usually the lymph nodes in the armpits – before spreading to the rest of the body. Doctors look for signs of swollen lymph nodes when determining the stage of breast cancer.
When doctors see signs of breast cancer, such as lymph node involvement in the armpits, they typically call the patient back in for more testing. Understandably, many patients experience anxiety between the time they hear about possibly having breast cancer and having that follow-up testing.
COVID Vaccination and Swollen Lymph Nodes
Swelling in the armpit was a noted side effect in large trials for both vaccines: 11.6 percent of patients receiving Moderna reported swollen lymph nodes after the first dose and 16 percent after the second dose. Those receiving the Pfizer vaccine have a lower incidence of swollen glands, with only 0.3 percent of reporting that side effect.
Lymph node swelling is a normal reaction to vaccination – it is a sign that the immune system is working. Also known as lymph glands, lymph nodes work like filters to trap viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens before they can infect other parts of your body. Vaccines work by teaching your immune system how to recognize pathogens and how to react in case the viruses should ever come back; because vaccines stimulate your immune system, lymph nodes may swell after you get the shot.
The enlarged lymph nodes are big enough to be visible on imaging scans, such as mammograms, CT scans, MRIs, and ultrasounds. For those who are unfamiliar with this side effect of the COVID vaccination, this could look like evidence of early stage breast cancer.
The Trouble with Swollen Lymph Nodes
It is scary for someone to think that they might have breast cancer, of course, and it causes great uncertainty and stress that can interfere with everyday life. Even when repeat testing shows there is not breast cancer, a false positive can still be unnerving. Research shows that false positive mammograms were more anxious when they had to go back for re-screening and experienced depression after the screening.
Doctors are also worried that women who know about lymph node swelling after vaccination will not get their mammograms on time. Mammogram screening rates plummeted during the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic, falling to just 1 percent of the usual breast cancer screening rates in April of 2020. The number of screening mammograms performed between April and December 2020 rose a bit to 49 percent from the same period the year before, but tens of thousands of woman still went without this important test for months; many still have not received a routine mammogram. Doctors worry that breast cancer screenings will fall again – and breast cancer cases will rise – if patients do not get the screening tests they need because they worry about swollen lymph glands after their COVID vaccinations.
How to Avoid False-positive Mammogram with COVID Vaccination
To avoid the chance of a false-positive mammogram, doctors recommend having the mammogram before getting a COVID vaccine. It does not matter how soon you have the vaccine after the mammogram – vaccination can even occur immediately after breast cancer screening.
If you must have the vaccination first, doctors recommend waiting 6 to 10 weeks after having a COVID vaccination to have a mammogram.
For more information about mammogram screening after a COVID vaccination, speak with a doctor or radiologist. Understanding how COVID vaccine can cause swollen lymph glands can help you avoid anxiety or depression associated with a false positive test; routine mammography can help your doctor detect breast cancer in its early stages, when it is most responsive to treatment.