This study explores the time of occurrence and risk factors of secondary lymphoedema after breast cancer surgery. A cross-sectional study of women with breast cancer (n = 230) recruited from Chongqing Breast Cancer Center from July 2009 to June 2010 provided data. A self-reported questionnaire was used to evaluate the lymphoedema by telephone interview at 6 monthly intervals between 12 and 24 months after breast cancer surgery. The Kaplan–Meier method and Cox proportional hazards regression were used to analyse the collected data. The mean time reported by women who had lymphoedema after breast cancer surgery was 18 months; body mass index and preoperative chemotherapy associated with lymphoedema development were identified in the present study. Given these findings, oncologists and nurses should provide sufficient knowledge to patients to recognize the symptoms, risk factors of lymphoedema and know-how to use interventions to prevent it.