Opportunities to study the natural history of ductal carcinoma in situ are rare. A few studies of incompletely excised lesions in the premammographic era, retrospectively recognized as ductal carcinoma in situ, have demonstrated a proclivity for local recurrence in the original site. The authors report a follow-up study of 45 women with low-grade ductal carcinoma in situ treated by biopsy only, recognized retrospectively during a larger review of surgical pathology diagnoses and original histological slides for 26 539 consecutive breast biopsies performed at Vanderbilt, Baptist and St Thomas Hospitals in Nashville, TN from 1950 to 1989. Long-term follow-up was previously reported on 28 of these women. Sixteen women (36%) developed invasive breast carcinoma, all in the same breast and quadrant as their incident ductal carcinoma in situ. Eleven invasive breast carcinomas were diagnosed within 10 years of the ductal carcinoma in situ biopsy. Subsequent cases were diagnosed at 12, 23, 25, 29 and 42 years. Seven women, including one who developed invasive breast cancer 29 years after her ductal carcinoma in situ biopsy, developed distant metastasis, resulting in death 1-7 years postdiagnosis of invasive breast carcinoma. The natural history of low-grade ductal carcinoma in situ may extend more than four decades, with invasive breast cancer developing at the same site as the index lesion. This protracted natural history differs markedly from that of patients with high-grade ductal carcinoma in situ or any completely delimited ductal carcinoma in situ excised to negative margins. This study reaffirms the importance of complete margin evaluation in women treated with breast conservation for ductal carcinoma in situ as well as balancing recurrence risk with possible treatment-related morbidity for older women.