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Cancer. 1998 Dec 15;83(12 Suppl American):2814-6.

Precipitating factors in lymphedema: myths and realities.

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Lymphedema Center, Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, Stanford University School of Medicine, California 94305, USA.



Lymphedema is an all too common occurrence following breast carcinoma therapy. Despite its prevalence, the predisposing factors to the development of this secondary form of lymphedema remain poorly understood.


Several studies have addressed these questions and are reviewed here.


Treatment factors that appear to predispose to the late, subjective appearance of lymphedema include the extent of axillary surgery and exposure to high dose axillary radiotherapy, particularly when combined with surgical clearance of the axilla. Other pertinent patient factors may include the presence of hypertension and exposure to airline travel. Clinical features unrelated to the risk of lymphedema development include patient age; drug therapy; time interval to presentation, surgery, or radiotherapy to the breast; total dose of radiation; and menopausal status. The potential importance of concomitant venous abnormalities in these patients is worthy of consideration.


Breast carcinoma-related secondary lymphedema is an important subjective and functional problem for affected patients. Additional research into the predisposing factors to this common problem is likely to foster enhanced patient education and to produce more efficacious measures to control this disease.

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