It has been recognized for some time that a family history of breast cancer is associated rather strongly with a woman's own risk of developing the disease. Recent segregation analyses of population-based data on familial patterns provide evidence for a rare autosomal dominant allele that increases a carrier's susceptibility to breast cancer. The estimated proportion of breast cancer patients who carry this allele declines sharply with age at diagnosis. Empirical estimates of the risk associated with particular patterns of family history of breast cancer indicate the following: (1) having any first-degree relative with breast cancer increases a woman's risk of breast cancer 1.5-3-fold, depending on age, (2) having multiple first degree relatives affected is associated with particularly elevated risks, (3) having a second-degree relative affected increases the risk by approximately 50%, (4) affected family members on the maternal side and the paternal side contribute similarly to the risk, (5) a family history of breast cancer is associated with bilateral disease, and (6) breast cancer in males is associated with breast cancer in female relatives in much the same way as is breast cancer in women. Ovarian cancer clearly has been shown to be associated with breast cancer in families, and genetic linkage has provided strong evidence for a breast-ovarian cancer gene located somewhere on chromosome 17q. At the population level, having a first degree relative with ovarian cancer may be at least as predictive of a woman's risk for developing breast cancer as is having a second-degree relative with breast cancer. Considerably weaker evidence points to a possible familial relationship between breast and endometrial cancer and between breast cancer in women and prostatic cancer in males. The clinical applications of the genetic epidemiology of breast cancer are complicated by uncertainty as to the efficacy of mammographic screening in women under the age of 50. For the vast majority of women with a positive family history, the epidemiologic evidence does provide the basis for offering considerable reassurance in that risks are not extremely high. For that rather small subgroup at exceptionally high risk, realistic estimates of the magnitude of absolute risk over the next 10-20 years may be more informative and less alarming than lifetime probabilities.