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Doctors alert patients of enlarged lymph nodes, result of COVID-19 vaccination

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Janette Stinson, a licensed practical nurse with Fetter Healthcare, gives a COVID-19 vaccine to a patient at a drive-thru clinic at Greater St. James AME Church in Summerville on Feb. 4, 2021. Lauren Petracca/Staff

While vaccines are steadily becoming more prevalent in surrounding communities, doctors are cautioning patients about enlarged lymph nodes in the armpit area, caused by the COVID-19 vaccine, that may be mistaken as signs of cancer during routine mammogram screenings.

The reports began coming in early throughout the nation, according to Dr. Brian Mahon, Breast Imagist at Trident Medical Center. Reports allowed doctors on a local level to become more informed about the issue before seeing it in the office. 

A release sent out by Imaging Specialists of Charleston on April 6, said that doctors at Imagining Specialists were warning patients to reconsider certain procedures after receiving the vaccine. Dr. Brian Burke, Cross Sectional Imagist at Imagining Specialist, explained in the release that experts suggest getting your mammogram done either before being vaccinated or waiting six weeks after receiving the vaccination before coming in for screening.

“However, if you feel a new lump, you should get it checked out right away,” Burke said.

Mahon says that this reaction is not something that is unique to the COVID-19 vaccine. Similar swelling, which essentially serves as your body's result to the virus, can occur with many other kinds of vaccines.

“What's happening is your lymph nodes are doing their job, they're getting enlarged because they are working,” Mahon says. 

Mahon says the portion of people this is affecting is very small, and those that do come in showing lymphadenopathy, the swelling of lymph nodes, on the side where they were vaccinated are easier to detect now with the screening. When checking in for their appointment, patients are being asked to fill out a form that documents if they had been vaccinated, when the date of their vaccination was and which side they were given the vaccine in.

Mahon says, similarly to Burke, that in a perfect world, patients would wait 4-5 weeks after their last vaccine, in order to give any potential swelling an opportunity to resolve before coming in to get their mammogram.

“After reviewing the minimal literature and minimal guidelines that are out there about how we should handle this potential side effect, what we don't want is patients to get this vaccine — and it's a very small percentage of those people that are getting lymphadenopathy — and think 'well i'm just going to wait a year I don't want to deal with it',” Mahon says.

The risks of putting off the yearly screening, Mahon says, are far higher than coming in and finding that there is swelling from the vaccine.

While studies are being made relating to the vaccine in the world of breast cancer, Mahon says there are absolutely no proven links to the vaccine and breast cancer itself.

“Just because it's sort of impacting the realm of breast cancer work-ups, I don't want people to think ‘oh I gotta stay clear of this [vaccine]. I already have some sort of elevated lifetime risk I’m just going to skip the vaccine,’” Mahon said.

“You have to have a little faith in us and make sure that wherever you are going they are up to date,” Mahon said. “You shouldn't be worried that you are going to have a higher risk of cancer with this, there's no link there.”