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Doctors warn of 'false positive' cancer scares due to vaccine swelling lymph nodes

The vaccine can enlarge lymph nodes, which can look like spreading cancer on mammography.
Posted at 7:51 PM, Mar 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-24 19:51:12-04

(WXYZ) — While enlarged lymph nodes are a totally normal and harmless response to a vaccine. They have caused some confusion during the COVID immunization process. Especially for women.

"People started getting vaccinated in December and we were having our healthcare workers in for their mammograms and we were like 'Wow this person has really enlarged lymph nodes,'" said Dr. Connie Lehman, the director of breast imaging at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

On a mammogram, an enlarged lymph node appears as white blobs. This is also what doctors see when a cancerous tumor is spreading. And so making this connection between the vaccine and lymph nodes was important in order to prevent, what Lehman refers to as: "false-positives."

"We had reported this in mammography centers before but nowhere near at the level, we were seeing with the COVID vaccine. We think that’s because the COVID vaccine creates a very strong immunological response," said Lehman who has written two papers on the topic hoping to get the word out so as to avoid unnecessary "cancer scares" and the anxiety and costs of unnecessary testing.

"We want to find cancer early when it can be treated and cured — we also don’t want to be bringing patients back in for additional imaging, biopsies, for treatment, when they don’t actually have cancer," said Lehman, who has authored two papers on the connection between vaccines and lymph nodes.

"This is a normal inflammatory — health inflammatory response, so we want to calm down the anxiety," she said.

But does this mean women should blow off their mammogram screening to avoid confusion? Absolutely not.

While a simple solution might seem like recommending women to get screened 4-6 weeks after their second vaccine — once swelling should subside — Lehman points out that not all women have the flexibility, time, or resources to just re-schedule. And missing a screening can be more detrimental.

The year of the COVID pandemic the US saw the lowest number of mammography screenings — and advanced delayed breast cancer diagnosis is feared as a result.

"We will see more breast cancer deaths because of COVID than we’ll ever see in the US — 100 percent," said Lehman, later adding. "It is almost impossible that we will avoid that unless we have a full, full effort on bringing women back for screening mammography exam."

Rather than reschedule a screening Lehman said just make sure your healthcare provider knows you were vaccinated and on which arm so they can keep this in mind during the screening.

"The message could not be more clear, get your vaccination as soon as you can, the second message is, do not skip your screening mammogram," she said.

It is suggested that women between the ages of 50 and 74 go in for mammogram screenings every one to two years.