Serum melatonin and its main metabolic product 6-sulfatoxymelatonin were determined in 17 patients with breast cancer (BC) with either a fresh primary tumor (nine) or a secondary tumor (eight) as well as in four patients with untreated benign breast disease (controls). Circadian rhythms were detected in all groups with acrophases around 2 AM for melatonin and around 3 AM for 6-sulfatoxymelatonin. The nocturnal melatonin and 6-sulfatoxymelatonin concentrations were significantly depressed in the group of patients with primary breast cancer compared with controls (P less than 0.01, P less than 0.025). The circadian amplitudes of melatonin and 6-sulfatoxymelatonin were also depressed by 81% (P less than 0.01) and 63% (P less than 0.01). In contrast, patients with secondary BC had nocturnal melatonin and 6-sulfatoxymelatonin concentrations and amplitudes similar to controls. These results demonstrate that the depression of circulating melatonin in patients with primary BC is not due to an enhanced degradation to 6-sulfatoxymelatonin in the liver but must be due to a reduced activity of the pineal gland.