Phoebe Freer, MD, a radiologist at Huntsman Cancer Institute and chief of breast imaging in the Department of Radiology and Imaging Sciences at University of Utah Health, provides insight on breast cancer screening and the COVID-19 vaccine.
What is a mammogram?
Mammography is a type of breast cancer screening that takes a digital x-ray picture of the breast. A mammogram can show signs of early breast cancer when it is easier to treat. Women who get regular mammograms have a 30-50 percent lower chance of dying from breast cancer. Mammography is the only screening test proven to save lives from breast cancer.
Who should be screened for breast cancer?
Huntsman Cancer Institute and University of Utah Health recommend that all women who are age 40 and older get a mammogram every year. If you have a personal or family history of breast cancer, you may need early screenings or other added yearly screening tests.
Can mammograms show anything besides cancer?
Yes, mammograms may show something that is not cancer, including benign (non-cancerous) masses, cysts, and calcifications. Normal lymph nodes in your breast or armpit may also show in some of the mammogram pictures. Sometimes a mammogram will show that lymph nodes are swollen or infected. This can be for benign reasons or could indicate possible cancer such as lymphoma or breast cancers.
Is it safe to get a mammogram after a COVID-19 vaccination?
Yes. Sometimes a COVID-19 vaccination can cause mild side effects such as fever, inflammation, or swelling that goes away after a few days. The swelling often happens in the lymph nodes in the arm or armpit on the same side the vaccine shot was given. This swelling is a sign that your body is building antibodies to fight off COVID-19. It is normal for some people and not an allergy.
Because some people get swollen lymph nodes in the armpit, sometimes enlarged lymph nodes from the vaccine can show up in a mammogram. This may require a follow-up imaging test.
Should I delay my mammogram if I recently received a COVID-19 vaccine or booster shot?
It is important that all women pay attention to the timing of their breast cancer screening and COVID-19 vaccine shots.
If you do not have breast-related symptoms and are scheduled for a screening mammogram soon after you receive a COVID-19 vaccine, you may want to consider changing your appointment until four to six weeks after your second vaccine or booster shots. This will avoid any possible related follow-up imaging tests if you have swollen lymph nodes after getting the vaccine.
If you do not want to reschedule your mammogram, you can keep your appointment. The date and location on your body that you had the vaccine should be documented. There is a good chance that side effects of the vaccine won't interfere with your mammogram in any way. In the small chance that the radiologist does see swollen lymph nodes on your screening mammogram, you may be called back for additional imaging (likely an ultrasound), either shortly after or up to a few weeks later to confirm the swelling has gone away.
Do not delay your mammogram without speaking to your doctor first. And do not delay a diagnostic mammogram (a mammogram being done for symptoms you may have or for an abnormality seen on the screening).
Regular cancer screenings can find cancer early when it is easier to treat. It is very important to make and keep your regular health or cancer screening appointments—even during the pandemic.
This blog was updated to reflect current information about COVID-19, vaccines, and breast cancer screening.