BACKGROUND: The definitive local therapy options for early-stage breast cancer are mastectomy and breast-conserving surgery followed by radiation therapy. Older women and those with comorbidities frequently receive breast-conserving surgery alone. The interaction of age and comorbidity with breast cancer severity and their impact on receipt of definitive therapy have not been well-studied. STUDY DESIGN: In a cohort of 1,837 women aged 65 years and older receiving treatment for early-stage breast cancer in 6 integrated health care delivery systems in 1990-1994 and followed for 10 years, we examined predictors of receiving nondefinitive local therapy and assessed the impact on breast cancer recurrence within levels of severity, defined as level of risk for recurrence. RESULTS: Age and comorbidity were associated with receipt of nondefinitive therapy. Compared with those at low risk, women at the highest risk were less likely to receive nondefinitive therapy (odds ratio = 0.32; 95% CI, 0.22-0.47), and women at moderate risk were about half as likely (odds ratio = 0.54; 95% CI, 0.35-0.84). Nondefinitive local therapy was associated with higher rates of recurrence among women at moderate (hazard ratio = 5.1; 95% CI, 1.9-13.5) and low risk (hazard ratio = 3.2; 95% CI, 1.1-8.9). The association among women at high risk was weak (hazard ratio = 1.3; 95% CI, 0.75-2.1). CONCLUSIONS: Among these older women with early-stage breast cancer, decisions about therapy partially balanced breast cancer severity against age and comorbidity. However, even among women at low risk, omitting definitive local therapy was associated with increased recurrence.