Anyone who undergoes a mammogram or other cancer screening shortly after the COVID-19 vaccine should alert doctors to avoid false alarms for a side effect.
“We need to get the word out,” said Dr. Melissa Chen, a radiologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, who recently had to reassure a frightened patient who requested a cancer test due to an enlarged lymph node.
An expert panel from three cancer centers, MD Anderson, Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York and Dana-Farber in Boston, published recommendations in the journal Radiology last week on how to handle scans complicated by side effect.
The main message: “This should not prevent patients from getting vaccinated,” emphasized Chen, one of the co-authors.
The most commonly affected nodes are in the armpit and near the clavicle, on the same side as the vaccine, Chen said.
It is not clear how often this happens. The FDA found that 16% of participants in the Moderna study reported some underarm swelling after their second dose. But if the lymph nodes are only slightly enlarged, they may show up on a medical examination without people noticing any lumps.
Consumer advice is still evolving. Where the experts agree: If you have recently been vaccinated, inform the radiologist before any scan. That will help them assess whether an enlarged lymph node is likely related to the vaccine and can simply be monitored, or is of concern enough for a biopsy or other test.
And try to schedule an upcoming cancer-related screening or other scan before vaccination if possible without losing your place in the vaccine line, the Radiology panel said.
People with active cancer found on one side of the body may choose to vaccinate on the opposite side to minimize confusion.
Don’t delay any urgent exams, radiologists stress. But there is some disagreement about non-urgent scans. The Radiology panel said you should consider scheduling purely routine screenings six weeks after vaccination. Rather, Massachusetts General Hospital recommendations urge managing the side effect with good communication rather than delaying detection.
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