Multiple guidelines exist for the follow-up of breast cancer, with no agreement on frequency or duration. The contribution of routine clinical examination for the detection of potentially treatable relapse, and the impact this has on survival, is unknown. In this study, we systematically review the literature to establish the proportion of potentially treatable locoregional relapses and new contralateral breast cancers detected by clinical examination, mammography and patient self-examination. We analyse whether method of detection of relapse influences outcome. The methods used were systematic review of the literature. MEDLINE, EMBASE, CancerLit, Web of Sciences and EBM reviews were the data sources for the systematic review. All studies with information on proportion of relapses detected by clinical examination, mammography and self-examination were included. A total of 30-40% of potentially treatable relapses are detected by patient self-examination. In studies published before 2000, 15% of such relapse is mammographically detected with 46% detected by routine clinical examination. In those published after 2000, 40% are mammographically detected with 15% detected on routine clinical examination. Patients with ipsilateral breast relapse detected clinically appear to do less well than those with relapse detected by self-examination or mammography. Routine clinical surveillance is responsible for detection of fewer potentially treatable relapses in more modern cohorts as experience with mammography increases. There is no evidence to suggest that clinical examination confers a survival advantage compared with other methods of detection. The data in this analysis suggest that a review of the guidelines on follow-up after breast cancer should be undertaken.