Duke radiologist warns COVID-19 vaccine reaction can mimic sign of breast cancer

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Doctors are urging women to schedule their mammograms around their COVID-19 vaccines, if possible. That’s because the vaccine can cause swollen lymph nodes which could be mistaken as a sign of breast cancer.   

Lately, Duke radiologist Dr. Lars Grimm, has seen some routine mammograms turn up unusual results.  

“We are seeing it all the time,” he said.  “When I was in clinic last week, two of the first three patients that we had both had swollen lymph nodes. “

That can be a concerning sign.  

“When it first happened, I think a lot of people were really alarmed because when we see this without any other history we think that a woman might have an early presentation of breast cancer,” Grimm explained. “We oftentimes do a more thorough diagnostic workup, might even recommend a biopsy for some of these lymph nodes, and I think a few patients nationwide early on did get biopsied.” 

It didn’t take long for doctors to realize that most of these swollen lymph nodes aren’t connected to cancer at all, but rather they’re a reaction to the COVID-19 vaccine.  

“In many ways, this is a good thing. If you have swollen lymph nodes, your body is responding to the vaccine; you’re developing those antibodies,” noted Grimm. “But we want to make sure women aren’t coming in and having a lot of concern.” 

To avoid concern and confusion, doctors are asking women to schedule routine mammograms before they get their vaccines or four to six weeks after their second dose if possible.

But Grimm emphasized, if you can’t reschedule,  a recent vaccine is not a reason to cancel your appointment altogether.

“We are really concerned because a lot of women canceled their mammograms last year when COVID first hit, and we don’t want women to go two years without getting their mammogram,” he said.  

If you have gotten a vaccine shot recently, he urges patients to let the person doing the mammogram know when you got your vaccine, which dose, and in which arm.

Often doctors will see swollen lymph nodes on the same side as the arm where you received the shot. He added, patients may need additional follow-up.  

Grimm said you should only change a mammogram appointment if it is a routine screening and you have no symptoms. If you do have any symptoms, you should keep your originally scheduled appointment.   

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