So I was thinking that if each cell has P(X) of becoming cancerous, then the chance of cancer is 1-((1-P(X))^n) where n is the number of cells in the organism.

Since larger organisms have more cells than smaller organisms (I'm guessing that larger organisms simply have more cells than smaller organisms as you can't have larger cells since there is an optimum surface area to volume ratio), does this mean then that larger creatures are more likely to have cancer cause they have more cells?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I would say that the question is more complicated since it really depends on the number of generations of cells. For instance muscle cells rarely get cancel but they also rarely divide. $\endgroup$
    – bobthejoe
    Mar 21, 2012 at 0:19
  • $\begingroup$ You also have to take into account that a lot of larger organisms have a large genome with a low percentage actually encoding exons. $\endgroup$
    – GWW
    Mar 21, 2012 at 2:56
  • $\begingroup$ @GWW: Is there actually a correlation between body size and fraction of coding DNA? $\endgroup$ Sep 15, 2012 at 7:57

1 Answer 1


As mentioned in the comments, this question is quite complicated. If the chance of a single cell from different organisms getting cancer was the same, then you would be correct, but this is not the case.

Different organisms have evolved to live different lengths of time. This is rather obvious when you think about it: mice have a maximum lifespan of ~3 years, humans ~80years (these figures are of course massive generalizations - but it doesn't really matter). Yet 'old' mice (> 2 years) still get age-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease, and cancer. It should be fairly clear that the risk of a 2 year old mouse getting (age-related) cancer is much higher than a 2 year old human.

The explanation for this isn't exactly concrete, but it goes something like this; mice invest a lot more resources in growing very fast and reaching a reproductive age very early, whereas humans develop much more slowly, and invest a higher proportion of their resources in maintaining tissue function, thereby reaching reproductive maturity much later than the mouse. The Hayflick limit for a mouse is about 10, whereas for humans this is closer to 60.

Thus the rate of aging in humans is much lower than that of the mouse, and it comes back to evolution: mortality in the wild is very high for the mouse, and thus mice that invest heavily in reaching early reproductive maturity are selected for - and those that invest in anti-cancer mechanisms take longer to reach reproductive maturity, and thus have less chance of actually doing it!

So to answer your question - smaller organisms tend to have higher risks of getting cancer because their lifespans are comparatively shorter, and thus they 'age' at a faster rate and invest less resources in maintaining function (e.g. genome integrity).

  • $\begingroup$ Would the OPs logic apply in the case of organisms from the same species? For example would larger humans have a higher risk of cancer than smaller ones? $\endgroup$
    – Kenshin
    Nov 20, 2014 at 2:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Mew interesting question. Had a quick search and could not find a systematic study. The closest I could find is a report suggesting that BMI is positively associated with some adult cancers in humans (PMID: 18280327), however this could be confounded by a number of issues (>BMI could indicate unhealthy lifestyle? inactivity, smoking, drinking... only suggestions, but you can see what I mean). I can see that the logic of "large people have more cells" would imply higher cancer rates, but I don't see any evidence for this. $\endgroup$
    – Luke
    Dec 1, 2014 at 12:08

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