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October 11, 2022
Author: Shelby
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  • Risk Factors for Developing Breast Cancer-Related Lymphedema

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.


  1.  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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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About the Author Shelby

Shelby Green is a Florida-licensed Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT), currently practicing at St. Anthony’s Resource Center Outpatient Rehabilitation in St. Petersburg, FL. Shelby received her Bachelor of Science in Biology from the University of South Florida, followed by her DPT from the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences. Shelby has 6 years clinical experience practicing in both the acute care and outpatient rehab settings. Specialties include orthopedics, with additional training in specific manual therapy techniques for pain management, as well as extensive training as a Certified Lymphedema Therapist.

Shelby is a Tampa, FL native, which is where she and her husband currently reside. Their favorite activities include spending time with family and anything outdoors, such as walking, bike riding, and going to the beach.

Medical Disclaimer

This website is intended to provide educational information only and should not be taken as medical advice. The information shared on this website is based on research, but is not intended to replace the advice of a healthcare professional. We recommend that you consult your healthcare provider for any specific questions or concerns you may have. The website does not accept responsibility for any harm that may occur from using the information given on this site. Speak to your medical provider about any health issues!

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