Background There is evidence that the extent of the G2/M arrest following irradiation is correlated with tumour cell survival and hence therapeutic success. We studied the regulation of cellular response to radiation treatment by miR-21-mediated modulation of cell cycle progression in breast cancer cells and analysed miR-21 expression in breast cancer tissue samples with long-term follow up. Methods The miR-21 expression levels were quantified (qRT-PCR) in a panel of 86 cases of invasive breast carcinomas in relation to metastasis free survival. The cellular radiosensitivity of human breast cancer cells after irradiation was determined comparing two cell lines (T47D and MDA-MB-361) by cell proliferation and colony forming assays. The influence of miR-21 overexpression or downregulation on cell cycle progression and G2/M checkpoint arrest after irradiation was assessed by flow cytometric analysis. Results The expression of miR-21 was transiently increased 8 hours after irradiation in the radioresistant T47D cells and significantly changed with lower extent in radiosensitive MDA-MB-361 cells. Anti-miR-21 treated breast cancer cells failed to exhibit the DNA damage-G2 checkpoint increase after irradiation. Apoptotic activity was significantly enhanced from 7% to 27% in T47D cells and from 18% to 30% in MDA-MB-361 cells 24 hours after 5 Gy irradiation. Additionally, we characterized expression of miR-21 in invasive breast carcinomas. In comparison to non-cancerous adjacent breast tissue, tumours samples had increased miR-21 expression that inversely correlated with the distant metastases-free survival of patients (p = 0.029). Conclusions Our data indicate that miR-21 expression in breast cancer cells contributes to radiation resistance by compromising cell cycle progression. These data point to the potential of combining radiotherapy with an anti-miR-21 as a potent G2/M check point inhibitor in overcoming radiation resistance of tumours.