The coronavirus vaccines, along with several other vaccines, can lead to temporarily swollen lymph nodes, raising false alarms for women during mammograms. TODAY's 3rd hour co-host Sheinelle Jones and Shop TODAY contributor Jill Martin said that they both experienced such a situation.
Martin has a family history of breast cancer: Her mother's mother passed away from the illness, and her mother had a double mastectomy though is otherwise healthy. Her high-risk status means she's "always on edge" during her annual examination.
"I went for my yearly mammogram and she said, 'There's something here that we didn't see before,'" Martin recalled on the 3rd hour of TODAY. "And they’re looking at the X-rays and you know, you get nervous. And she said 'What side did you get your vaccine on?' And so you think for a second and I said 'Oh, this side.'"
Martin said that it was a side effect she didn't think to expect. NBC News medical correspondent Dr. Natalie Azar said that the reaction is not "unusual" and "happens with a whole host of other vaccines."
How COVID-19 vaccines can affect mammogram screenings:
"This is just your immune system being triggered by the vaccine, in the form of these B-cells which are sitting in the lymph nodes, under the arm, on the side where you got the vaccine, that are basically waiting to churn out antibodies to the coronavirus after a vaccination if you ever are, in the future, exposed to the virus," Azar explained.
Azar said that while this is more likely to be found in women, since they are more likely to be getting mammograms, it is possible for men to experience the same symptom.
"It can happen to men, absolutely," Azar said. "You know, you could even have this reaction in the lymph node and not even be aware of it. They can enlarge and then recede. If you’re a man and then this happens, absolutely you should also reach out to your doctor, we know that men can certainly get breast cancer."
Since Martin is high-risk, the node was biopsied, and when she received the clear results, she called her mother.
"I then told my mother afterwards. She said to me ‘I didn’t tell you either, because I didn’t want to scare you: That happened to me too,’" Martin said. "I just wanted all women to know what it’s really about so you at least have some comfort if you do feel something."
What to know before scheduling your mammogram:
Dr. Kristi Funk, breast cancer surgeon and medical director of Pink Lotus, a community supporting people with breast cancer, offered some advice for women who are getting the coronavirus vaccine and are worried about getting a false positive on their annual mammogram.
"If you're at routine population risk to get breast cancer and it’s time for your mammo, time it for before you get a vaccination or four to six weeks after your final dose," Funk said. "This little delay of four to six weeks will definitely not impact cancer incidence or survival rates."
Both Sheinelle and Martin said they had been within that range, with Sheinelle noting that she had gotten her mammogram just five days after being vaccinated.
If you're at higher risk, are due for diagnostic imaging or are experiencing new symptoms like a breast lump that wasn't there before, Funk advises not delaying the mammogram, even if it is immediately after receiving the vaccine.
If you do see a swollen lymph node on your mammogram, Funk emphasized that you shouldn't panic.
"What’s happening with these mammograms is we see a big white splotch in the armpit on mammo on one side and not the other. That’s what all the hullabaloo is about. That’s what’s causing all the false alarms," Funk said.
If your mammogram does raise any alarms, Funk said your doctor will perform a targeted ultrasound of the lymph node area. The ultrasound is "fast, painless," and "super informative," according to Funk, and requires no radiation.
"A normal node is easy to spot. It’s almond-shaped, big white center, thin dark periphery," Funk said. "A reactive node, responding to the presence of that vaccine is basically a normal node but very pumped up. It’s very enlarged and dramatic, so much so that it’s a little hard for us to casually dismiss it as totally normal, but it is. It’s normal and reactive."