The interpretation of case-control studies in which blood nutrient levels are examined as etiological factors in cancer is complicated by the possibility that either the disease or its treatment may alter these levels. Circulating levels of selected nutrients were examined prior to diagnostic biopsy and compared with levels 3 to 4 months after diagnosis among 71 women with breast cancer and 95 women with benign breast disease. Among women with benign breast disease or women with breast cancer who were not given postsurgical adjuvant drug therapy, levels of alpha-carotene, lycopene, alpha-tocopherol, cholesterol, and triglycerides did not change over time. In contrast, women who received chemotherapy had increased levels of cholesterol, retinol, and alpha- and gamma-tocopherol, and women on antiestrogen therapy showed increased levels of triglycerides and alpha-tocopherol. Overall, the concentrations of carotenoids (lycopene, alpha-carotene, and beta-carotene) did not change in breast cancer cases, although subgroup analyses showed increased levels of beta-carotene among cases not receiving drug treatment and decreased levels among those receiving antiestrogens. In summary, blood levels of some nutrients did not appear to be affected by breast cancer or its treatments, but changes were noted for levels of plasma lipids, tocopherols, retinol, and beta-carotene. Those investigating the etiological relationship between breast cancer and circulating nutrients need to consider these effects in designing and interpreting epidemiological studies.