BACKGROUND: At least one-third of primary breast cancers in Australia are discovered by population-based mammographic screening. The aim of this study was to determine whether there were any differences in the surgical treatment of women diagnosed with breast cancer by BreastScreen Victoria between urban and rural populations and to investigate temporal changes in their pattern of care. METHODS: An analysis of women diagnosed with breast cancer (invasive and non-invasive) by BreastScreen Victoria from 1993 to 2000 was conducted. Descriptive analyses of the proportion of women undergoing each surgical treatment type over time were carried out. Logistic regression was used to assess the effect of urban-rural residence on each treatment outcome while accounting for possible confounding factors. RESULTS: Rural women with invasive breast cancer were less likely to undergo breast-conserving surgery (BCS) compared with urban women (odds ratio, 0.42; 95% confidence interval, 0.35-0.50). The same was also true for rural women with ductal carcinoma in situ (odds ratio, 0.53; 95% confidence interval, 0.29-0.96). This difference was independent of patient and tumour characteristics, including tumour size, surgeon caseload, patient's age and socioeconomic status. It also persisted over time despite a steady overall increase in use of BCS for both invasive and non-invasive cancers over the study period. CONCLUSIONS: Among Victorian women with screen-detected breast cancer, urban women consistently had higher rates of BCS compared with rural women despite increased overall adoption of BCS. Reasons for this disparity are still unclear and warrant further investigation.