Estrogens play an important role in regulating the growth and differentiation of normal, premalignant and malignant cell types, especially breast epithelial cells, through interaction with two nuclear estrogen receptors (ERalpha and ERbeta). In this review, we present a brief overview of the actions of estrogens in the different steps of breast carcinogenesis, including cancer progression to metastasis, and of their clinical consequences in the prevention, prognosis and treatment of the disease. The requirement of estrogen receptors, mainly of the alpha subtype, in normal mammary gland differentiation and growth has been evidenced by estrogen receptor deficiency in animals. The promotion of breast cancer carcinogenesis by prolonged exposure to estrogens is well-documented and this has logically led to the use of anti-estrogens as potentially chemopreventive agents. In breast cancer progression, however, the exact roles of estrogen receptors have been less well established but they may possibly be dual. Estrogens are mitogenic in ER-positive cells and anti-estrogens are an efficient adjuvant therapy for these tumors. On the other hand, the fact that estrogens and their receptors protect against cancer cell invasiveness through distinct mechanisms in experimental models may explain why the presence of ER is associated with well-differentiated and less invasive tumors.