Previous studies have emphasized that genetic susceptibility to breast cancer is rare and is expressed primarily as premenopausal breast cancer, bilateral breast cancer, or both. Proliferative breast disease (PBD) is a significant risk factor for the development of breast cancer and appears to be a precursor lesion. PBD and breast cancer were studied in 103 women from 20 kindreds that were selected for the presence of two first degree relatives with breast cancer and in 31 control women. Physical examination, screening mammography, and four-quadrant fine-needle breast aspirates were performed. Cytologic analysis of breast aspirates revealed PBD in 35% of clinically normal female first degree relatives of breast cancer cases and in 13% of controls. Genetic analysis suggests that genetic susceptibility causes both PBD and breast cancer in these kindreds. This study supports the hypothesis that this susceptibility is responsible for a considerable portion of breast cancer, including unilateral and postmenopausal breast cancer.