Patients with primary breast carcinoma with one to three axillary lymph node metastases but without distant metastases (n1-3) in Japan have been shown to have a 10-year disease-free survival rate of > 60%. It would be reasonable to divide n1-3 Japanese breast cancer patients into groups with high- or low-risk for recurrence and to consider post-operative adjuvant therapy. In the present study, we analyzed 228 consecutive Japanese patients with n1-3 breast cancer who underwent radical mastectomy and were followed up for a median time of 11.0 years. The expression of bcl-2, p53 and c-erbB-2 proteins in the primary tumors was examined immunohistochemically and their prognostic roles were also analyzed along with conventional clinicopathologic indicators. bcl-2 expression was correlated with positive estrogen receptor status and inversely correlated with p53, c-erbB-2 and histologic grade. Univariate analysis showed that bcl-2, p53 and c-erbB-2 expression were prognostic indicators of the patient's group as well as node status, histologic grade, tumor size, age at diagnosis, menopausal status and estrogen receptor status. Cox's regression analysis demonstrated that the number of nodes involved, menopausal status, p53 and bcl-2 were independent predictors for overall survival and that histologic grade and the number of nodes involved were independent predictors for disease-free survival. These results suggest that bcl-2 expression in combination with p53 and c-erbB-2 expression, the number of lymph node metastases, histologic grade and menopausal status are useful in selecting subgroups of n1-3 breast cancer patients with good or poor prognoses.