Apoptosis plays an important role in tumorigenesis. Tumour growth is determined by the rate of cell proliferation and cell death. We counted the number of apoptotic cells in haematoxylin and eosin (H&E)-stained tumour sections in series of 172 grade I and II invasive breast cancers with long-term follow-up. The number of apoptotic cells in ten high-power fields were converted to the number of apoptotic cells per mm2 to obtain the apoptotic index (AI). The AI showed a positive correlation to the mitotic activity index (MAI) (P = 0.0001), histological grade (P < 0.0001) and worse tumour differentiation. Patients with high AI showed shorter overall survival than patients with low AI in the total group as well as in the lymph node-positive group. Tumour size, MAI, lymph node status and AI were independent prognostic indicators in multivariate analysis. The AI was shown to be of additional prognostic value to the MAI in the total patients group as well as in the lymph node-positive group. The correlation between the AI and the MAI points to linked mechanisms of apoptosis and proliferation. Since apoptotic cells can be counted with good reproducibility in H&E-stained tumour sections, the AI may be used as an additional prognostic indicator in invasive breast cancer.