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J Clin Oncol. 2009 Jan 20;27(3):390-7. doi: 10.1200/JCO.2008.17.9291. Epub 2008 Dec 8.

Lymphedema in breast cancer survivors: incidence, degree, time course, treatment, and symptoms.

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  • 1Department of Medicine, Division of Hematology/Oncology, Center for Clinical Epidemiologyand Biostatistics, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6021, USA.



To examine the incidence, degree, time course, treatment, and symptoms of lymphedema in breast cancer survivors.


We conducted a 5-year, population-based prospective study of 631 randomly selected Philadelphia and Delaware County, Pennsylvania female residents with incident breast cancer who were diagnosed from 1999 to 2001. Using a questionnaire previously validated against physical therapists' measurement-based clinical criteria, we assigned a score indicating the degree of lymphedema (none, mild, or moderate/severe) to each month of follow-up based on the respondent's perceived differences in hand/arm size. Standard survival analysis methods permitted maximum use of follow-up.


Five-year cumulative incidence of lymphedema was 42 (42%) per 100 women. Among the 238 affected women, lymphedema first occurred within 2 years of diagnosis in 80% and within 3 years in 89%. Among 433 women observed for 3 years, 23% reported no more than mild lymphedema, 12% reported moderate/severe lymphedema, and 2% reported chronically moderate/severe lymphedema. Women with mild lymphedema were more than three times more likely to develop moderate/severe lymphedema than women with no lymphedema. Thirty-seven percent of women with mild lymphedema and 68% with moderate/severe lymphedema received treatment. Increasing proportions of women with increasing degree of lymphedema reported symptoms (eg, jewelry too tight, tired/thick/heavy arm). Symptoms present before the first occurrence of lymphedema were associated with a higher probability of later lymphedema (eg, hazard ratio for jewelry too tight = 7.37; 95% CI, 4.26 to 12.76).


Lymphedema after breast cancer is common but mostly mild. Subtle differences in self-reported hand/arm size and symptoms can be early signs of progressing lymphedema.

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