Background: Breast cancer-related lymphedema (BCRL) is a significant complication for women undergoing treatment. We assessed BCRL incidence and risk factors in a large population-based cohort. Methods: We utilized the Olmsted County Rochester Epidemiology Project Breast Cancer Cohort from 1990–2010 and ascertained BCRL and risk factors. The cumulative incidence estimator was used to estimate the rate of BCRL; competing risks regression was used for multivariable analysis. Results: A total of 1794 patients with stage 0–3 breast cancer with a median of 10 years follow-up were included. The cumulative incidence of BCRL diagnosis within 5 years was 9.1% [95% confidence interval (CI) 7.8–10.5%]. No BCRL events occurred among patients without axillary surgery. In the axillary surgery subset (n = 1512), the 5-year incidence of BCRL was 5.3% in sentinel lymph node (SLN) surgery and 15.9% in axillary dissection (ALND) patients (p < 0.001). In patients treated with surgery only, BCRL rates were not different between ALND versus SLN (3.5 and 4.1% at 5 years, p = 0.36). Addition of breast or chest wall radiation more than doubled the BCRL rate in ALND patients (3.5 vs. 9.5% at 5 years, p = 0.01). The groups with highest risk (>25% at 5 years) all involved ALND with nodal RT and/or anthracycline/cytoxan + taxane chemotherapy. In multivariable analysis of patients with any axillary surgery factors significantly associated with BCRL were ALND, chemotherapy, radiation, and obesity. Conclusions: BCRL is a sequelae of multimodal breast cancer treatment and risk is multifactorial. BCRL rates are higher in patients receiving chemotherapy, radiation, ALND, more advanced disease stage, and higher body mass index.
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