Certain treatment approaches for breast cancer have been found to create an increased risk for potential development of breast cancer-related lymphedema (BCRL). It's important to recognize these risk factors and take the appropriate precautions and preventative measures to try and avoid lymphedema onset.
Higher risk factors for BCRL are as follows:
- Axillary lymph node dissection
- Higher number of lymph nodes removed
- Higher number of positive lymph nodes
- Post-operative infections
- Radiation therapy directly to the lymph nodes
- Higher BMI
While a sentinel lymph node biopsy has been found to reduce the risk of developing lymphedema, it does not completely eliminate it. According to an article in Critical Reviews in Oncology/Hematology, the chances of developing BCRL after an axillary lymph node dissection are >20%, whereas the risk with a sentinel lymph node biopsy is 3.5-11%.
The risk of BCRL is technically considered a lifetime possibility; however, it seems that most will develop lymphedema within a 2–5-year range after their treatment. Other studies have found that 15% of cases develop >5 years after treatment completion.
If you know that you are at a higher risk, or really any risk at all, to develop BCRL, be sure to talk with your oncologist about a referral to a Certified Lymphedema Therapist (CLT). There are methods and techniques that can be taught to help reduce your risk of developing lymphedema.
- Golshan M, Smith B. Prevention and management of arm lymphedema in the patient with breast cancer. The Journal of Supportive Oncology. 2006 Sep;4(8):381-386. PMID: 17004511.
- Rockson, M.D. SG. Lymphedema after Breast Cancer Treatment. Solomon, M.D., M.P.H. CG, ed. N Engl J Med 2018; 379:1937-1944. doi: 10.1056/NEJMcp1803290. Accessed September 24, 2022.
- Taghian NR, Miller CL, Jammallo LS, O’Toole J, Skolny MN. Lymphedema following breast cancer treatment and impact on quality of life: A review. Critical Reviews in Oncology/Hematology. 2014; 92(3):227-234. Accessed September 24, 2022. Lymphedema following breast cancer treatment and impact on quality of life: A review - ScienceDirect.