Little is known about time trends in metastases in the patients treated in routine health care facilities without metastases at diagnosis (M0) and about survival after these metastases. Data on 33,771 M0 patients with primary breast cancer diagnosed between 1978 and 2003 were obtained from the Munich Cancer Registry. Survival analyses were restricted to the patients with metastases within 5 years of the initial diagnosis. The incident number of the patients approximately doubled each period and 5-year overall survival increased from 77% in the first to 82% percent in the last period. 5490 (16%) M0 patients developed metastases within 5 years after the initial diagnosis. The hazard of developing metastases was lowest in the most recent period compared to the first period (HR = 0.50, P < 0.001). The hazard of dying after metastases was equal for patients diagnosed between 1978-1984 and 1995-2003 (HR 1.08, P = 0.3). The percentage of the patients that developed bone metastases decreased each time period, but the percentage primary liver and CNS metastases increased. Exclusion of site of metastases in the multivariate analysis led to a 20% (P = 0.02) higher hazard of dying following metastases in the last versus the first period. In the period 1978-2008, unfavourable changes in the pattern of metastases were exhibited and no improvement was observed in survival of the patients after occurrence of metastases. An explanation might be the increased use of adjuvant systemic treatment, which has less effect on the highly lethal liver and CNS metastases than on bone metastases. The increased use also appeared to contribute to the overall prevention of metastases in breast cancer and therefore to improve overall survival.