COLORADO SPRINGS — You may have seen some national news stories about women who have experienced swollen lymph nodes in the breast or armpit area after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. These are certainly nothing to be ignored, because lumps in those areas are also a red flag when it comes to breast cancer.
A Colorado Springs woman recently reached out to me after this happened to her. Ethel Amutan wanted to share her story to make sure other women get good information about the link between the vaccine and potential lymph node swelling. In late January, Ethel received her first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Three weeks later, she went in for a regularly scheduled mammogram, not thinking anything about it.
“I went in and the radiologist, two days later, notified me that the mammogram was abnormal,” she said. “My initial reaction of course was, ‘Oh my gosh, you found swollen lymph nodes.’ As a generally healthy person I was a little shocked and slightly panicked.”
Dr. Jason Allen, director of breast imaging for UCHealth's southern region, isn’t Ethel’s radiologist, but explains in general: “We're seeing this (swollen lymph nodes - in some cases) with any of the vaccines that are currently available for COVID-19. Moderna or Pfizer - we're not seeing it any more with one than the other. We're waiting to see what will happen with Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but overall it's a normal response of the body's immune system.”
Dr. Allen says lymph nodes can be found in many places in the body. “You have them all over your body: your underarm, in your groin, they are along your spine, they're in your neck and lymph nodes can sometimes be in the breast. They tend to be the first line of defense if you will, or - the first item that is encountered by a pathogen when it's introduced to the body. Your lymph nodes can respond (to the pathogen) by thickening and becoming bigger.”
You should always talk with your doctor about any new lumps, discharge or changes in breast tissue or in the armpit area. Dr. Allen says there is generally an indication that new lumps following a vaccination could be the lymph nodes reacting to the vaccine. “The swelling lymph nodes, when it occurs with association with a vaccination - will occur on the same side as the vaccination. So, in the underarm on the same side that you get the vaccine, you would expect to see the swelling of the lymph nodes, and it may be a little tender. But, if you're having a lump on the opposite side of where you got the vaccine, that would be a more troublesome sign.”
Ethel has a follow-up appointment for a second ultra-sound in the coming weeks to assess her lymph nodes and has remained in closed contact with her doctors through her process of being vaccinated.
UCHealth has a question-and-answer form online and a lot of great information about breast cancer screenings and COVID-19 vaccination. You can find it at: BREAST CANCER SCREENING OR COVID-19 VACCINE? DO BOTH [uchealth.org] (https://www.uchealth.org/today/breast-cancer-screening-mammogram-and-covid-19-vaccination/ [uchealth.org])
In our next story, Dr. Allen will discuss the recommendations for COVID vaccines around mammograms, and Ethel shares her thoughts of the importance of getting a COVID vaccine despite the extra visits to her doctor to monitor her overall health.
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