The mammary gland epithelial components are thought to arise from stem cells that undergo both self-renewal and differentiation. Self-renewal has been shown to be regulated by the Hedgehog, Notch, and Wnt pathways and the transcription factor B lymphoma Mo-MLV insertion region 1 (Bmi-1). We review data about the existence of stem cells in the mammary gland and the pathways regulating the self-renewal of these cells. We present evidence that deregulation of the self-renewal in stem cells/progenitors might be a key event in mammary carcinogenesis. If 'tumor stem cells' are inherently resistant to current therapies, targeting stem cell self-renewal pathways might provide a novel approach for breast cancer treatment.