BACKGROUND It is well established that the incidence rates of first primary breast cancer have been increasing over time. In contrast, the incidence rates of second primary breast cancer are largely undocumented. This study describes the epidemiology of second primary breast cancer among a population-based cohort of 305,533 U.S. women diagnosed with breast cancer between 1973 and 1998. METHODS We compared age-specific incidence rates for overall and second primary breast cancer according to year of diagnosis and demographic and tumor characteristics. RESULTS Overall, age-specific rates of breast cancer increased with increasing age and year of diagnosis, whereas incidence of second primary breast cancer peaked among young women and declined after 1988. Consistent with what is known about genetic susceptibility to breast cancer, at every age the rate of second primaries was greater than the overall rate; among women age 20 to 29 years the rate of second primary was more than 100 times greater. Although overall age-specific rates of breast cancer for African-American women were lower than for whites, rates of second primaries were higher. Women with a first primary that was either lobular or medullary had a greater likelihood of developing a second primary, although, there were relatively few with these histologic types. CONCLUSIONS The pattern of incidence rates for first and second primary breast cancer differ markedly over time and by age.