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Benign breast disease (BBD), particularly proliferative BBD, is an established breast cancer risk factor. However, there has been no systematic attempt to compare the hormonal profiles of the two conditions. In a case–control investigation in Athens, Greece, we compared levels of estrogens, testosterone and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), as well as their principal binding proteins, between breast cancer patients, women with BBD by histological type (proliferative and nonproliferative) and women with no breast pathology.We studied 466 women with incident breast cancer, 704 women with BBD and 244 healthy women. We used multiple regression to compare log-transformed serum hormone levels of breast cancer patients with those of healthy women and women with BBD by histological type (proliferative and nonproliferative BBD).The hormonal profile of breast cancer in our study was in line with the generally accepted hormonal profile of this disease, as reported from large cohort studies. Compared with healthy women, breast cancer patients tended to have higher levels of steroid hormones. The evidence was strong for estrone (difference 21.5%, P < 0.001), weaker for testosterone (difference 15.8%, P = 0.07) and weaker still for estradiol (difference 12.0%, P = 0.18). Also compared with healthy women, breast cancer patients had barely higher levels of IGF-1 (difference 2.0%, P = 0.51), but had significantly lower levels of IGF binding protein 3 (IGFBP-3) (difference −6.7%, P = 0.001). Compared with women with BBD, breast cancer patients had nonstatistically significantly lower levels of steroid hormones, but they had higher levels of IGF-1 [difference 5.5%, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.7% to 10.6%] and lower levels of IGFBP-3 (difference −3.7%, 95% CI −6.7% to −0.7%). Differences were more pronounced when breast cancer patients were contrasted to women with proliferative BBD.Our findings suggest that high levels of IGF-1 may be an important factor toward the evolution of BBD to breast cancer.