Background The effective management of lymphedema risk following breast cancer surgery and treatment requires enactment of simple behavioural strategies, including regularly checking for early lymphedema symptoms. Adopting a broad self-regulatory perspective, our aim for this study was to identify psychological factors associated with adherence to these risk management strategies. Methods Women (N = 98) recently diagnosed with breast cancer and scheduled for breast and lymph node surgery completed questionnaires prior to surgery and at 3 months post-surgery. Variables assessed included demographics, cognitive belief variables in relation to lymphedema and its management (perceived negative consequences, perceived lymphedema controllability, self-efficacy, perceived personal risk, perceived self-regulatory ability to manage risk-related distress), lymphedema knowledge, trait anxiety and adherence to lymphedema risk management recommendations. Results Greater adherence was associated bivariately with greater beliefs in lymphedema controllability, self-efficacy, perceived consequences and perceived self-regulatory ability. Linear regression analyses revealed that only greater beliefs in the controllability of lymphedema and self-regulatory ability, as well as greater knowledge, were predictive of greater adherence to risk management strategies. Conclusions This study highlights the importance of underlying beliefs as determinants of whether a woman who is informed and knowledgeable about lymphedema risk and its management will undertake the recommended risk management actions. Along with raising awareness of lymphedema and its risk management, health professionals should promote positive beliefs among women regarding the controllability of lymphedema through early-detection/early- treatment approaches. In addition, educational approaches should aim to enhance a woman's beliefs in her ability to adhere to these risk management recommendations over time.