OBJECTIVE: To make recommendations to physicians who provide follow-up care for women who have been treated for early-stage breast cancer. OPTIONS: Combination of blood tests, bone scans, liver echography and chest radiography for detection of distant disease; physical examination with or without mammography for detection of contralateral breast cancer; and physical examination with or without mammography for detection of ipsilateral recurrent disease after breast-conserving therapy. OUTCOMES: Survival, disease recurrence and quality-of-life measures for distant disease, local recurrence of disease and disease in the contralateral breast. EVIDENCE: A MEDLINE search for relevant articles published between January 1966 and January 1998 with the MeSH terms "breast neoplasms" and "neoplasm recurrence" (local and distant) with limits to "human" was done. A subsequent MEDLINE search using the MeSH terms "breast neoplasms," "neoplasm recurrence," "local/diagnosis" and "mammography" was done to address issues of mammography. The literature search was reviewed by a medical librarian and 2 breast cancer specialists to ensure completeness. BENEFITS, HARMS AND COSTS: Breast cancer is the most common cancer in Canadian women and is the second leading cause of death after lung cancer. Even with early-stage breast cancer, recurrence after treatment for primary breast cancer is frequent. Traditionally, follow-up has been felt to facilitate early detection and improve survival. Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) have shown that routine screening (blood tests and diagnostic imaging) for distant disease does not alter survival or quality of life over routine physical examination. In an underpowered secondary analysis of RCT data, the detection of contralateral breast cancer did not affect survival. However, there have been no RCTs examining the role of mammography and physical examination and their effect on survival in the detection of contralateral breast cancer. The sensitivity and specificity of mammography after local excision and radiotherapy is unknown. There have been no RCTs examining the role of mammography or physical examination, or both, and their effect on survival in the detection of ipsilateral breast recurrence. VALUES: The strength of evidence was evaluated using the methods of the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care. A high value was placed on interventions that changed survival. When evidence was available, high value was also placed on interventions that affected quality of life. RECOMMENDATIONS: There is good evidence not to include blood work and diagnostic imaging as part of screening for distant disease (grade E recommendation). There is no evidence to suggest that mammography decreases mortality by detecting ipsilateral disease in the conservatively treated breast; however, there is indirect evidence that it may be beneficial (grade C recommendation). There is no direct evidence to suggest that physical examination or mammography, or both, should be used to detect contralateral breast cancer; however, there is indirect evidence that it may be beneficial (grade C recommendation). VALIDATION: The findings of this analysis were reviewed through an iterative process by the members of the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care.