Although elevated circulating estrogens are associated with increased postmenopausal breast cancer risk, less is known regarding the role of estrogen metabolism in breast carcinogenesis. We conducted a case-cohort study within the Breast and Bone Follow-up to the Fracture Intervention Trial to assess serum estrogens and estrogen metabolites (EMs) in 407 incident breast cancer cases diagnosed during follow-up and a subcohort of 496 women. In 1992-93, women completed a baseline questionnaire and provided blood samples. Hazard ratios (HRs) and 95% confidence intervals (CIs), adjusted for geography and trial participation status, were estimated using Cox proportional hazard regression. Serum concentrations of EMs were measured by liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry. EMs (quintiles, Q) were analyzed individually, as metabolic pathways (C-2, -4 or -16) and as ratios. Elevated circulating estradiol was associated with increased breast cancer risk (HRQ5vsQ1 = 1.86; 95% CI: 1.19-2.90; P trend = 0.04). An elevated ratio of the 2-hydroxylation pathway (HRQ5vsQ1 = 0.69; 95% CI: 0.46-1.05; P trend = 0.01) and 4-hydroxylation pathway (HRQ5vsQ1 = 0.61; 95% CI: 0.40-0.93; P trend = 0.004) to parent estrogens (estradiol and estrone) was inversely associated with risk. A higher ratio of the 2/16-hydroxylation pathways was associated with reduced risk (HRQ5vsQ1 = 0.60; 95% CI: 0.40-0.90; P trend = 0.002). Increased 2- or 4-hydroxylation of parent estrogens may lower risk of postmenopausal breast cancer. Analyses of metabolic pathways may help elucidate the role of estrogen metabolism in breast carcinogenesis.