Background: Lymphoedema can be a devastating complication of surgical treatment for breast cancer. There is a lack of research on its prevalence in Australia which has hindered the development of measures to combat the condition. The aims of this study were to establish the prevalence and investigate the aetiology of upper limb lymphoedema in women treated for breast cancer in the years 1994–1996 in southern Tasmania.
Methods: A standard volumetric water displacement technique was used to measure the arms of 201 women. A subjective assessment of swelling was also made by each patient. Factors analysed for statistical association with lymphoedema were: patient characteristics, type of treatment and tumour, and lymph node pathology.
Results: The overall objective prevalence rate, regardless of treatment type, was 11%; whereas, the subjective rate was 23.4%. The objective prevalence for procedures involving axillary surgery was 14.2%. Significant statistical associations were found between arm size and body mass index at time of assessment (r = 0.15, P = 0.04); type of surgery (Chi-squared test = 11.06, P = 0.05); surgery to axilla (U = 2515.5, P = 0.002); tumour size (r = 0.17, P = 0.03); and tumour grade (Chi-squared test = 6.51, P = 0.04). No significant relationship was found between lymphoedema and axillary irradiation, number of lymph nodes removed, age or handedness of the patient.
Conclusions: Women receiving axillary dissection as part of their breast cancer treatment carry a significant risk of developing lymphoedema, regardless of the extent of surgery. The causative role of axillary irradiation was not supported. Future research should concentrate on less invasive alternatives to axillary dissection, such as sentinal lymph node biopsy.