The incidence of breast cancer is continuously increasing worldwide. This increasing trend is attributed partly to the fact that a considerable number of cases are related to environmental factors and partly to the little information available on the early changes that occur during mammary gland carcinogenesis. To characterize some of these early cellular changes, breast cancer was induced in female rats using a single intragastric dose of the environmental carcinogen 7,12-dimethylbenz[a]anthracene (DMBA; 80 mg/kg body weight). Mammary gland tissues of control and DMBA-treated rats were processed for routine histopathological examination and immunohistochemical analysis using an antibody specific for the proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA). Microscopic examination of all mammary glands of DMBA-treated rats revealed a wide range of preneoplastic stages in addition to the well-characterized benign and malignant tumors that developed. The first stage was characterized by slightly dilated terminal ducts with accumulation of dead cells. This was designated the stage of cell death. Then, stages of hyperplasia, dysplasia, and carcinoma in situ followed. Immunohistochemical localization of PCNA in these preneoplastic lesions revealed an initial decrease followed by a gradual increase in the labeling index of PCNA. In conclusion, the DMBA-treated rats provide a useful model to dissect the early changes that occur during the multistep process of mammary gland carcinogenesis.