Breast cancer is a heterogeneous disease, though little is known about some of its rarer forms, including certain histologic types. Using Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program data on 135 157 invasive breast cancer cases diagnosed from 1992 to 2001, relationships between nine histologic types of breast cancer and various tumour characteristics were assessed. Among women aged 50-89 years at diagnosis, lobular and ductal/lobular carcinoma cases were more likely to be diagnosed with stage III/IV, > or =5.0 cm, and node-positive tumours compared to ductal carcinoma cases. Mucinous, comedo, tubular, and medullary carcinomas were less likely to present at an advanced stage. Lobular, ductal/lobular, mucinous, tubular, and papillary carcinomas were less likely, and comedo, medullary, and inflammatory carcinomas were more likely to be oestrogen receptor (ER) negative/progesterone receptor (PR) negative and high grade (notably, 68.2% of medullary carcinomas were ER-/PR- vs 19.3% of ductal carcinomas). In general, similar differences were observed among women diagnosed at age 30-49 years. Inflammatory carcinomas are associated with more aggressive tumour phenotypes, and mucinous, tubular, and papillary tumours are associated with less aggressive phenotypes. The histologic types of breast cancer studied here differ greatly in their clinical presentations, and the differences in their hormone receptor profiles and grades point to their likely different aetiologies.