COVID-19 Vaccine Swelling Mimics Breast CancerJun 3, 2021
While vaccines are beginning to significantly slow the spread of COVID-19, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have also prompted undue concern in women by causing swelling in the armpit or underarm, mimicking the lumps associated with breast cancer. Dr. Anosheh Afghahi recently sat down with the University of Colorado Cancer Blog to explain what is happening, and how providers can address these concerns within their own practices.
After getting a COVID-19 vaccine, some are seeing swelling of the lymph nodes in the underarm area on the same side of the body that the shot was administered. According to Dr. Afghahi, this is your body's immune system response, but can be problematic because when these lymph nodes swell and they are seen on a mammogram, it creates the need for additional imaging, follow-up imaging, or a biopsy which is an understandable cause of anxiety or stress.
To lessen the need for more testing, the Society of Breast Imaging has set up guidelines to help patients and providers navigate this situation. "One option is for patients to have their screening mammogram prior to their first dose of the vaccine. For those that have already received the vaccine, the recommendation is to get the screening mammogram four to six weeks after both vaccine doses" says Dr. Afghahi. Providers now routinely ask mammogram patients if they have had a vaccine in the last three months and in which arm they received the shot.
Patients with a history of breast cancer can wait for a week or two at the most to see if the swelling goes down, but says Dr. Afghahi "if it doesn't go down, then, given their history, it's better to just reach out to the provider and make sure that the imaging recommended by the provider is being done. It has increased follow-up imaging a bit for our patients, because if they have a history of breast cancer, we don’t want to just assume that it’s the vaccine."
Lumps inside the breast is not something that providers have seen as often with the COVID vaccine, the lumps that are being seen in the armpits or underarms are occurring in lymph nodes. Dr. Afghahi advises people to reach out to their providers if they have a new breast mass. In some cases it can difficult to determine because some auxiliary breast tissue goes up higher, making an ultrasound or mammogram necessary when distinguishing between breast tissue and a lymph node. "In general, if the lump is not getting smaller and softer within the span of a week, or if it is getting larger with associated symptoms that make it more suspicious, then it is always better to reach out and have the provider conduct a clinical breast exam and order an ultrasound" says Dr. Afghahi.