Feb 25, 2021 3:00 PM

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. Mammograms are recommended for all women ages 40 and older once a year. A mammogram can show signs of breast cancer early, when it is easier to treat. Women who get regular mammograms have a 30-50% 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.

How do COVID-19 vaccines work?

Vaccines are very safe and very effective. COVID-19 vaccines help our bodies develop immunity to the virus that causes COVID-19 without us getting the illness. Sometimes the vaccine can cause symptoms 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 your body is building antibodies to fight off COVID-19. It is normal for some people and not an allergy.

The COVID-19 vaccines do not contain the actual COVID-19 virus and cannot give you a COVID-19 infection. We encourage all patients to receive the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available to them.

I recently received the COVID-19 vaccine and my lymph nodes are swollen. Should I be worried?

There is likely no reason to worry. Both Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines can cause lymph nodes to swell or be tender. This is especially true in the armpit area on the same arm the shot was given. This swelling is a normal response of the body’s immune system. Swelling should be temporary and go away in a few days or could last up to a few weeks.

If I got the COVID-19 vaccine, is it safe to get a mammogram?

Yes. Mammography screening is safe for all women who have received the COVID-19 vaccine. Yet, women should pay attention to the timing of their COVID-19 vaccine shots and breast screenings. This is because some people get swollen lymph nodes in the armpit as a normal immune response to the vaccine. In some cases, enlarged lymph nodes from the vaccine show up in a mammogram. This may require a follow-up imaging test.

Should I delay my mammogram if I had the COVID-19 vaccine recently?

It is important that all women pay attention to the timeline 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 shot. 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. We will document the date and location on your body that you had the vaccine. There is a good chance 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.

What steps are Huntsman Cancer Institute and University of Utah Health taking to protect against the spread of COVID-19?

We have many added safety protocols in place to help keep you safe:

  • Temperature checks and symptom screenings for everyone who enters the hospital or clinic
  • Employees and patients required to wear masks at all times
  • Social distancing in waiting areas
  • Rooms and equipment disinfected between every patient

In addition, many of our providers, hospital staff, and other frontline workers have been vaccinated against COVID-19 to protect not only themselves, but also our patients.

How do I make a mammogram appointment?

Call 801-581-5496 or visit the mammograms and breast exams website. 

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