BACKGROUND: Within a setting without organised breast cancer screening, the characteristics and survival of very early breast cancer were determined. METHODS: All 4930 women diagnosed with breast cancer in University Malaya Medical Center, Malaysia from 1993 to 2011 were included. Factors associated with very early presentation (stage I) at diagnosis were identified. Tumour characteristics, management patterns, and survival of very early breast cancer were described, and where appropriate, compared with other settings. RESULTS: Proportion of women presenting with stage I breast cancer significantly increased from 15.2% to 25.2% over two decades. Factors associated with very early presentation were Chinese ethnicity, positive family history of breast cancer, and recent period of diagnosis. Within stage I breast cancers, median tumour size at presentation was 1.5 cm. A majority of stage I breast cancer patients received mastectomy, which was associated with older age, Chinese ethnicity, postmenopausal status, and larger tumours. Chemotherapy was administered in 36% of patients. Five-year age-adjusted relative survival for women with stage I breast cancer was 99.1% (95% CI: 97.6-99.6%). CONCLUSIONS: The proportion of women presenting with very early breast cancer in this setting without organised screening is increasing. These women seem to survive just as well as their counterparts from affluent settings.