Doctors Forgot to Warn People With Breasts That the Covid Vaccine Could Affect Their Next Mammogram

Illustration for article titled Doctors Forgot to Warn People With Breasts That the Covid Vaccine Could Affect Their Next Mammogram
Image: ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT (Getty Images)

“So let me tell you about this medical scare I’ve been having for the last few days,” was the opening line from my mother during our bi-weekly FaceTime call. Like countless women, she’d gone in for her annual mammogram and was expecting to receive a prompt notice from her doctor’s office telling her all was well and to remember to schedule another mammogram around the same time next year. Instead, she got a letter with the words “found” and “most likely benign” too close together in the same sentence. As my mother would eventually find out after spending days mentally planning her own funeral, the swelling of her lymph nodes was a false flag triggered by having received the second dose of the covid vaccine a few days before her mammogram.

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According to the Cleveland Clinic, as more women receive the vaccine, doctors are noticing a sharp rise in their mammograms showing swollen lymph nodes under the arm—which, under different circumstances, can sometimes be indicative of breast cancer. For most recipients of the covid vaccine, doctors say that swollen lymph nodes are a common response by the body. “The whole point of the vaccine is to get your immune system to mount a response to whatever the vaccine agent is,” one doctor explained to the Cleveland Clinic. Lymph nodes which function as filters for trapping viruses in the body often serve as one of the early detection signs for breast cancer. When the lymph nodes swell it’s part of a larger immune system response—and when those nodes are closer to the breasts, they can be indicative of a cancer spread. Because the vaccine is shot into the upper arm, doctors are not surprised that the common immune response of swollen lymph nodes is showing up in the underarm area.

Another side effect that has been popping up for some people is an early or heavier period, which was observed by a research fellow from the Division of Public Health Sciences at Washington University, according to The Verge. Unsurprisingly, a change in menstruation was not on the list of possible side effects when the vaccine started rolling out. I perused the info sheet that was given to me at my local vaccination site and there is still no mention of a potential change to my period, despite the fact that the menstrual cycle responds to any and everything going on in the body. Luckily, there is now a formal study led by two people who were “surprised by their periods” after vaccination to investigate how the vaccine affects menstruation. Crazy what the wider world of science could accomplish if people whose bodies produce periods were as closely observed as those who do not during clinical testing phases—a gendered oversight with a long, unfortunate history.

DISCUSSION

anneelliott1993
anneelliott1993

While I’m normally all about the gendered biases in medicine, this articles seems a little excessive, given that we are learning, literally in real time, about both the coronavirus and Covid, and the vaccines. A year ago people were wiping down their mail or quarantining their packages. We only learned of efficacious vaccines four months ago. It’s going to take time to identify all the side effects. For months I’ve been reading daily about the vaccines and their side effects, and hadn’t heard of heavier periods until I read this article. Let’s adopt an attitude of gratitude with a dollop of “and let’s get the word out regarding gendered differences in how bodies respond to vaccines.”

Math comment: In clinical trials for Pfizer and Moderna, approximately 15000 people got each of the vaccines while 15000 didn’t. If half of those recepients were women, you’ve got 7500 females, not all of whom would have been menstruating regularly if they got a solid slice of 50yo+ women participating. Women in their 40s often have heavier periods as they transition through perimenopause. It’s entirely possible this never came up as a possible side effect, that we needed MILLIONS of doses distributed for this to appear often enough to attract attention. 

I got my second shot yesterday and have a swollen lymph node in my neck, near my collarbone. This is a very rare side effect, even more rare than the underarm lymph node reaction, based on what I’ve read. I’m not up in arms because no one told me about it.