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Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2010 Nov;19(11):2734-46. doi: 10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-09-1245. Epub 2010 Oct 26.

Risk factors for lymphedema after breast cancer treatment.

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Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6021, USA.



As cancer treatments evolve, it is important to reevaluate their effect on lymphedema risk in breast cancer survivors.


A population-based random sample of 631 women from metropolitan Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, diagnosed with incident breast cancer in 1999 to 2001, was followed for 5 years. Risk factor information was obtained by questionnaire and medical record review. Lymphedema was assessed with a validated questionnaire. Using Cox proportional hazards models, we estimated the relative incidence rates [hazard ratios (HR)] of lymphedema with standard adjusted multivariable analyses ignoring interactions, followed by models including clinically plausible treatment interactions.


Compared with no lymph node surgery, adjusted HRs for lymphedema were increased following axillary lymph node dissection [ALND; HR, 2.61; 95% confidence interval (95% CI), 1.77-3.84] but not sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB; HR, 1.04; 95% CI, 0.58-1.88). Risk was not increased following irradiation [breast/chest wall only: HR, 1.18 (95% CI, 0.80-1.73); breast/chest wall plus supraclavicular field (+/- full axilla): HR, 0.86 (95% CI, 0.48-1.54)]. Eighty-one percent of chemotherapy was anthracycline based. The HR for anthracycline chemotherapy versus no chemotherapy was 1.46 (95% CI, 1.04-2.04), persisting after stratifying on stage at diagnosis or number of positive nodes. Treatment combinations involving ALND or chemotherapy resulted in approximately 4- to 5-fold increases in HRs for lymphedema [e.g., HR of 4.16 (95% CI, 1.32-12.45) for SLNB/chemotherapy/no radiation] compared with no treatment.


With standard multivariable analyses, ALND and chemotherapy increased lymphedema risk whereas radiation therapy and SLNB did not. However, risk varied by combinations of exposures.


Treatment patterns should be considered when counseling and monitoring patients for lymphedema.

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