For families with a small number of cases of breast and/or ovarian cancer, limited data are available to predict the likelihood of genetic predisposition due to mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2. In 104 families with three or more affected individuals (average 3.8) seeking counselling at family cancer clinics, mutation analysis was performed in the open reading frame of BRCA1 and BRCA2 by the protein truncation test and mutation-specific assays. In 31 of the 104 families tested, mutations were detected (30%). The majority of these mutations (25) occurred in BRCA1. Mutations were detected in 15 out of 25 families (60%) with both breast and ovarian cancer and in 16 out of 79 families (20%) with exclusively cases of breast cancer. Thus, an ovarian cancer case strongly predicted finding a mutation (P < 0.001). Within the group of small breast-cancer-only families, a bilateral breast cancer case or a unilateral breast cancer case diagnosed before age 40 independently predicted finding a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation (P = 0.005 and P = 0.02, respectively). Therefore, even small breast/ovarian cancer families with at least one case of ovarian cancer, bilateral breast cancer, or a case of breast cancer diagnosed before age 40, should be referred for mutation screening.