Incidence of unilateral arm lymphoedema after breast cancer : a systematic review and meta-analysis

DiSipio, Tracey, Rye, Sheree, Newman, Beth, & Hayes, Sandi (2013) Incidence of unilateral arm lymphoedema after breast cancer : a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet Oncology, 14(6), pp. 500-515.

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The body of evidence related to breast-cancer-related lymphoedema incidence and risk factors has substantially grown and improved in quality over the past decade. We assessed the incidence of unilateral arm lymphoedema after breast cancer and explored the evidence available for lymphoedema risk factors.


We searched Academic Search Elite, Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health, Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (clinical trials), and Medline for research articles that assessed the incidence or prevalence of, or risk factors for, arm lymphoedema after breast cancer, published between January 1, 2000, and June 30, 2012. We extracted incidence data and calculated corresponding exact binomial 95% CIs. We used random effects models to calculate a pooled overall estimate of lymphoedema incidence, with subgroup analyses to assess the effect of different study designs, countries of study origin, diagnostic methods, time since diagnosis, and extent of axillary surgery. We assessed risk factors and collated them into four levels of evidence, depending on consistency of findings and quality and quantity of studies contributing to findings.


72 studies met the inclusion criteria for the assessment of lymphoedema incidence, giving a pooled estimate of 16·6% (95% CI 13·6–20·2). Our estimate was 21·4% (14·9–29·8) when restricted to data from prospective cohort studies (30 studies). The incidence of arm lymphoedema seemed to increase up to 2 years after diagnosis or surgery of breast cancer (24 studies with time since diagnosis or surgery of 12 to <24 months; 18·9%, 14·2–24·7), was highest when assessed by more than one diagnostic method (nine studies; 28·2%, 11·8–53·5), and was about four times higher in women who had an axillary-lymph-node dissection (18 studies; 19·9%, 13·5–28·2) than it was in those who had sentinel-node biopsy (18 studies; 5·6%, 6·1–7·9). 29 studies met the inclusion criteria for the assessment of risk factors. Risk factors that had a strong level of evidence were extensive surgery (ie, axillary-lymph-node dissection, greater number of lymph nodes dissected, mastectomy) and being overweight or obese.


Our findings suggest that more than one in five women who survive breast cancer will develop arm lymphoedema. A clear need exists for improved understanding of contributing risk factors, as well as of prevention and management strategies to reduce the individual and public health burden of this disabling and distressing disorder.

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ID Code: 66356
Item Type: Journal Article
Refereed: Yes
Keywords: Breast cancer, Lymphedema, Incidence, Risk factors, Meta-analysis
DOI: 10.1016/S1470-2045(13)70076-7
ISSN: 1474-5488
Subjects: Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > MEDICAL AND HEALTH SCIENCES (110000) > ONCOLOGY AND CARCINOGENESIS (111200)
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Faculty of Health
Current > Institutes > Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation
Current > Schools > School of Public Health & Social Work
Deposited On: 21 Jan 2014 02:49
Last Modified: 29 Jan 2014 21:56

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