False Alarms Rise After Mammograms Catch Swelling From COVID-19 Vaccine

As eloquent as our bodies can be when something is wrong, it's still true that we can get no end of frustration from how limited its signals can be.

After all, who hasn't gone on WebMD to check on a minor problem only to convince themselves that they have cancer 15 minutes later? And while it's both relieving and a little embarrassing to learn from the doctor that we were fine all along, it's not as if they don't know what that frustration is like themselves.

And it seems that has become all the more clear as more people receive COVID-19 vaccines. Because apparently, its side effects can look a lot like a more serious problem when it's working as intended.

Late last year, Boston primary care physician Dr. Devon Quasha (not pictured) found a lump in her left breast during a self-examination.

As she told CNN, this compelled her to schedule a mammogram and ultrasound in early January.

Fortunately, this lump would turn out to be of little significance, but something else made her radiologist concerned.

It's worth noting that about a week before this mammogram, Quasha received her first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in her left arm.

And while her body didn't noticeably react at the time, she discovered swollen, tender lumps under her armpit and above her collarbone, which are the sites of lymph nodes.

As she said to CNN, "You have lymph nodes above and below your collarbone. You don't want to feel those. It was scary when I felt it."

And while her radiologist found them similarly concerning at first, she decided not to schedule Quasha for a biopsy and instead booked a follow-up ultrasound for six weeks later once Quasha's recent vaccination came up.

Because although those lymph nodes shouldn't swell up under normal circumstances, they're a much more mundane and common occurrence after a COVID-19 vaccination.

According to the Mayo Clinic, since these lymph nodes are part of the body's immune system, their swelling in response to a COVID-19 vaccine is just a sign that they're building up defenses against the virus.

Since that's what they should be doing, the swelling — however uncomfortable — isn't a sign of any real cause for alarm in this case.

But since that isn't widely known, radiologists have seen a large spike in similar cases to Quasha's when they've conducted mammograms.

As Dr. Connie Lehman of Massachusetts General Hospital's department of radiology told CNN, "We all started talking about it, and it was like a wildfire. I cannot tell you how many women are showing nodes on mammograms and people thought it was going to be not that common."

To prevent unnecessary biopsies as a result of this phenomenon, the Society of Breast Imaging's patient care committee put out an advisory for radiologists to ask about their patients' vaccination status and record the date it was received and where on the body the injection took place.

In the abscence of a mass vaccination program like we're seeing now, these nodes would generally be a serious sign of breast cancer and grounds for an immediate biopsy.

But as Lehman said, "When you hear hoofbeats, don't think zebra. If a woman had a vaccine in the arm on the same side, and the lymph nodes are swollen, this is a normal biological response. It's totally expected. It just doesn't make sense to start imaging."

This confusion has led some patients to reschedule their mammograms, but the Mayo Clinic advises proceeding with them as scheduled and simply updating the relevant facility about your vaccination prior to arrival.

Nonetheless, Dr. Lars Grimm from the Duke University School of Medicine wanted to stress that this does not mean patients can't still request biopsies if they remain unsure about their cancer status after the vaccine discussion takes place.

h/t: CNN, Mayo Clinic

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