The link between sex steroids and the development and growth of breast cancer has proved to be an invaluable clue for advances in the prevention and treatment of breast cancer. The identification of the oestrogen receptor (ER) not only allowed advances in the molecular endocrinology of oestrogen action, but also provided a target for antioestrogenic therapeutic agents. However, the application of long-term or indefinite treatment regimens has consequences for the breast cancer. New forms of resistance, based upon enhanced cellular survival networks independent of ER and the suppression of apoptotic mechanisms, develop and then evolve. Remarkably, low concentrations of oestrogen collapse survival pathways and induce apoptosis in completely antihormonally refractory breast cancer. However, recurrent oestrogen-stimulated disease is again sensitive to antihormonal therapy. The novel reapplication of the ER as a therapeutic target for apoptosis is emerging as a new strategy for the long-term targeted maintenance treatment of breast cancer, and in formulating a targeted strategy for endocrine independent cancer.