Sept. 21, 2021 – We’ve known for months now that COVID-19 vaccines can cause a reaction that may give women a breast cancer scare. But, scientists and doctors say, mammograms remain as important as ever.
But these changes are temporary, and do not appear to be cause for alarm.
“The COVID vaccine creates an immune response in the body. It is quite possible that following the vaccine, there would be some swelling in the lymph nodes. These lymph nodes contain immune cells known as B cells,” says Zeina Nahleh, MD, director of the Maroone Cancer Center at the Cleveland Clinic Weston Hospital.
“When they respond to the vaccines, they generate antibodies, and the buildup of antibodies in the lymph nodes may cause enlarged (breast) lymph nodes.”
Advocates, oncologists, and Nahleh recommend that you either do your screening mammogram before being vaccinated or wait 1 to 2 months after.
That way, you will not be confused as to whether your lymph nodes are actually getting bigger or if it’s just the side effect of the vaccine. If there is no emergency, delay your mammogram 6-8 weeks after your vaccine, she says.
Other clinicians advise women to still get mammograms, even if they’ve recently gotten the vaccine. Randy Hicks, MD, co-owner and CEO at Regional Medical Imaging in Michigan, says they have continued to screen thousands of women yearly, including during the pandemic. They simply account for any potential vaccine side effects by noting if patients have had the COVID vaccine and in which arm.
This minor observation explains the swollen lymph nodes in the mammogram.
Hicks also notes that new artificial intelligence technology can improve doctors’ accuracy while reading mammograms and reduce false positives and unnecessary callbacks for women.
If you have breast cancer, the coronavirus should not discourage you from treatment.
But it is important for breast cancer patients to be vaccinated, considering they stand the chance of a weakened immune system.
The immune system is responsible for fighting off diseases that your body comes across daily. If it is compromised, it would not be as effective, and this can lead to opportunistic infections.
“If you have a lower immunity, you want to get a vaccine to help fight the virus in case it gets into your body. The problem with it is that it [the vaccine] might not work as well in patients with lowered immune systems than in patients with normal immunity,” says Hicks.
To help the vaccine work better in cancer patients, Hicks, along with the CDC, recommends cancer patients get a booster shot about 6 to 8 months after the second shot. This will help boost the immune system’s response to the virus.
Despite all of this, it is normal that people might worry about getting sick, which is why Hicks suggests doing the things that you worry about instead of putting them off. He also tells patients to eat the right things, like fruits and vegetables, get enough sleep, and engage in outdoor activities.
“Maintaining healthy habits are the best way to manage stress for any patient, and not unhealthy habits,” Nahleh says.