Animal studies suggest that dietary polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) of the n-6 class, found in corn and safflower oils, may be precursors of intermediates involved in the development of mammary tumors, whereas long-chain (LC) n-3 PUFAs, found in fish oil, can inhibit these effects. This case-control study was designed to examine the relationship between the PUFA composition of breast adipose tissue and the risk of breast cancer. Using fatty acid levels in breast adipose tissue as a biomarker of past qualitative dietary intake of fatty acids, we examined the hypothesis that breast cancer risk is negatively associated with specific LC n-3 PUFAs (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid) and positively associated with n-6 PUFAs (linoleic acid and arachidonic acid). Breast adipose tissue was collected from 73 breast cancer patients and 74 controls with macromastia. The fatty acid levels were determined by gas-liquid chromatography. A logistic regression model was used to obtain odds ratio estimates while adjusting for age. The age-adjusted n-6 PUFA (linoleic acid and arachidonic acid) content was significantly higher in cases than in controls (P = 0.02). There was a trend in the age-adjusted data suggesting that, at a given level of n-6 PUFA, LC n-3 PUFAs (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid) may have a protective effect (P = 0.06). A similar inverse relationship was observed with LC n-3-to-n-6 ratio when the data were adjusted for age (P = 0.09). We conclude that total n-6 PUFAs may be contributing to the high risk of breast cancer in the United States and that LC n-3 PUFAs, derived from fish oils, may have a protective effect.