The hypothesis that a dietary supplement of selenium (Se) may reduce cancer risk was tested experimentally in humans. Patients with histories of basal/squamous cell carcinomas of the skin were assigned randomly in double-blind fashion to daily oral supplements of either Se-enriched yeast (200 micrograms Se/day), or a low-Se yeast placebo. A total of 1312 patients recruited in 1983-1990 were followed with regular dermatologic examinations through 1993 for a total of 8269 person-years of observation. Skin cancer diagnoses were confirmed histologically. Plasma Se concentration was determined at 6-12 months intervals. All deaths and patient-reported illnesses were recorded; reported cancers were confirmed and documented by consultation with the patient medical care providers. The results indicate that Se did not significantly affect the primary endpoints: incidences of recurrent basal/squamous cell carcinomas of the skin. However, Se-treatment was associated with reductions in several secondary endpoints: total mortality, mortality from all cancers combined, as well as the incidence of all cancers combined, lung cancer, colorectal cancer and prostate cancer. The consistencies of these associations over time, between study clinics and for the leading cancer sites strongly suggests benefits of Se-supplementation for this cohort of patients, supporting the hypothesis that supplemental Se can reduce cancer risk. Although Se did not shown protective effects against non-melanoma skin cancers, the suggested reductions in risks to other frequent cancers demand further evaluation in well controlled clinical intervention trials.