Ovarian cysts of several types are common in women of reproductive age. Their etiology is not well understood but is likely related to perturbations in the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis. The relationship of ovarian cysts to breast cancer risk is not known, although a negative association with polycystic ovarian syndrome has been reported. Incident, invasive female breast cancer cases, population-based controls and unaffected sisters of cases were studied from 3 countries participating in the Breast Cancer Family Registry: Melbourne and Sydney, Australia; the San Francisco Bay Area, USA; and Ontario, Canada. Using the same questionnaire, information was collected on self-reported history of ovarian cysts and other risk factors. Analyses were based on 3,049 cases, 2,344 population controls and 1,934 sister controls from all sites combined. Odds ratios (ORs) and 95% confidence intervals (CIs) were estimated using both unconditional and conditional logistic regression using an offset term to account for sampling fractions at 2 of the sites. A significantly reduced risk of breast cancer was observed for women reporting a history of ovarian cysts (OR = 0.70, 95% CI 0.59-0.82, among all cases and all controls). This risk estimate was similar regardless of control group used, within all 3 sites and in both premenopausal and postmenopausal women (ORs ranging from 0.68-0.75, all 95% CI excluded 1.00). A self-reported history of ovarian cysts was strongly and consistently associated with a reduced risk of breast cancer. Further study of ovarian cysts may increase our understanding of hormonal and other mechanisms of breast cancer etiology.