We know that screening for breast cancer leads to detection of smaller tumours with less lymph node metastases. Could it be possible that the decrease in mortality after screening is not only caused by this earlier stage, but also by a different mitotic activity index (MAI) of the tumours that are detected by screening? Is MAI a prognostic factor for recurrence-free survival? A retrospective study was carried out of 387 patients with breast cancer, treated at the University Hospital Nijmegen between January 1992 and September 1997. Ninety patients had screen-detected breast cancer, 297 patients had breast cancers detected outside the screening programme. The MAI, other prognostic factors and recurrence-free survival were determined. In non-screen-detected tumours the MAI is twice as high as in screen-detected tumours, even after correction for age took place. The MAI correlated well with other tumour characteristics. The MAI in itself is a prognostic factor for recurrence-free survival. Favourable outcome in screen detected breast cancer is not entirely caused by detecting cancer in early stages: quantitative features such as the MAI indicate a less malignant character of screen detected breast cancer. The MAI is an independent prognostic factor for recurrence-free survival.