Vaccine makes it difficult to detect breast cancer; doctor says do this before getting shot

A patient has a mammogram, on October 9, 2017 at the Paoli-Calmette institute, a fight against cancer regional centre. / AFP PHOTO / ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT (Photo credit should read ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) —  Some patients are developing swollen lymph nodes post-vaccination in areas around their breasts, making it difficult for doctors to distinguish between lumps from enlarged lymph nodes versus potentially cancerous tumors.

News 8 spoke with Dr. Cameual Wright, VP market chief medical officer at CareSource, to explain why this is happening and if women should be concerned. 

Gillis: There’s a new study showing that women who get the coronavirus vaccine are developing swollen lymph nodes around their breasts. And this is causing problems with mammograms. Why is this happening?

Wright: Swollen lymph nodes are very common as a result of vaccinations and that’s just our body’s way of mounting a response to the vaccine. So, our lymph nodes work with our immune system and when they are responding in that way that shows us that our immune system is ramping up. So, it’s actually a good thing and we like to see that. 

However, when we have a mammogram, we are looking for various changes in the breast, as well as around the breast, and one of those changes can be swollen lymph nodes. When a woman has enlarged lymph nodes, there can be a question of why that is occurring and sometimes having a mammogram can make that picture a little murky. 

Gillis: So, we’re really saying this is something that is triggered by an immune response and we shouldn’t necessarily be so concerned about it. As you mentioned, this is a sign the vaccine is working. 

Wright: That’s exactly right. It’s a sign that our immune system is revving up and doing what we want it to do. The presence of the swollen lymph nodes in and of themselves are not concerning. However, it can make things a little bit more difficult to interpret at the time of a mammogram.

There are a few things that I would recommend. If you can schedule your mammogram around your vaccine – that would be ideal. So, if you were getting strictly a vaccination and you do not have any areas of concern, your doctor has not created any concern or brought up any issues with you, then there are a couple of things I would recommend: Schedule your mammogram prior to your vaccine or schedule it about four to six weeks after your second shot. 

And in that situation, this should not be an issue whatsoever. So, any reaction your lymph nodes may have should not be a factor if you schedule around the time of your vaccination. I do want to emphasize though that is only under screening circumstances. If you are having a diagnostic mammogram because either you or your provider has concerns, you should absolutely go ahead and get that regardless of where you are in the vaccine process. 

Just let your technician know at the time of the mammogram that you did have a vaccine and let them know which arm the shot was given so they can have that information when they are interpreting the mammogram. 

Gillis: Did you say what arm? Wow. 

Wright: We would expect the reaction to be a bit more prominent on the side of the arm that you had your vaccine. So, if you had the vaccination and you have swollen lymph nodes on the right side and the vaccine was in your right arm that is information that your radiologist can use when making his interpretation. It’s an additional piece of information so that he or she can make the best interpretation possible. 

Gillis: You had mentioned earlier to schedule your mammogram and then the vaccine maybe six weeks after. What about the reverse? Scheduling the vaccine first and then getting a mammogram? Especially if we’re part of a vulnerable group and need to get the vaccine. 

Wright: Absolutely. And that is something we have to do in health care all the time. One thing you can do is to get your mammogram first before the vaccine and then none of this is an issue whatsoever. If that is a possibility that’s an ideal thing to do. 

If that is not a possibility and you are getting the mammogram strictly for screening reasons and not because of any concern, then you should complete your full course of vaccinations – so both shots and then receive your mammogram four to six weeks after the vaccine.

Now, if you have special circumstances – a lump, pain, skin changes or anything that your doctor has concerns about – you should go ahead and get that mammogram regardless of where you are in the vaccine cycle. 

Any important diagnostics tests should continue to occur, regardless of where you are in terms of the vaccine. And I think you bring up another good point about vulnerable populations. Certainly women who have breast cancer are generally going through treatment that may affect our immune system and so they are at increased risk for the coronavirus, as well as consequences of the virus. We certainly want them to talk to their provider, but they would be in a population of individuals we would want to see vaccinated. 

So, we do not want women to misinterpret this as, “If I have breast cancer or I’m concerned about breast cancer, I shouldn’t get the vaccine.” That is absolutely not correct. We are recommending the vaccine for those individuals. We just want them to be mindful of the timing of the vaccine. If it’s at all possible to modify that timing, just make sure you let all of the relevant providers know you received the vaccination.