This is my first question on this Stack Exchange; I hope that I am following your posting guidelines correctly.

I am not someone who writes books (or is writing a book), but I do like to write short stories for my own entertainment. Most of my education is in computer science, cellular biology, and medicine.

When I was in undergrad, I learned (to my surprise) that cancer risk approached 100% as length of life extended. To put it another way, if you live long enough you'll die of cancer. Also, the reason for cells to become senescent is heavily linked to the shortening of telomeres. This made me think about a cure for cellular aging that involved a protein drug able to extend telomeres, at the cost of highly mutagenic properties.

So, now to the question: What would be the societal implications of cheap immortality that came with a vastly increased risk of cancer?

In this situation, there would be no "maximum" life span, just a statistical one - how long on average a person lives before they express a malignant and untreatable form of cancer. Let's also say that most people die very quickly (~1 month) after cancer expression.

I would guess that most people would opt for the treatment, as in this scenario we will assume that the statistical life span is longer than what people would normally expect.

My guess is that it would lead to much more reckless/short-term-focused behavior, as even though median life span would be increased you would never know when you would die.

Love to hear any thoughts on this subject!



I'd like to note that when I say "immortality" I am using the definition of "non-aging but able to be killed by other means, such as disease or a fatal wound".

I think that this is an important distinction. Although it is (IRL) technically possible to die at any moment due to a freak occurrence or accident, most people tend to assume they will live to a certain age.

In this scenario, there is no "expected" age to which someone will live; they could suddenly die of cancer at age 20 or live to be hundreds of years old. Age at time of death wouldn't follow a predictable distribution around the mean/median. This unpredictability is what I think would have interesting implications.


The vast increase in cancer risk would be for a specific type of malignant, quickly-progressing cancer which is very rarely seen nowadays. Otherwise, as pointed out below, everyone would die of cancer fairly early. Sure, this isn't exactly how a classic mutagen works but since it's a theoretical pharmaceutical we can bend the rules a bit.

Thanks for the thoughts so far!

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ We've been staring this one in the face. We can trade aging for cancer risk, but the current risk estimate is something like expect one cancer per two years of life, and with even 10% fatality rate, it's worse than aging. $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 16:38
  • $\begingroup$ I swear I recall reading a sci-fi novel from decades ago where immortals (only a handful, not common knowledge) ran the risk of developing cancer... but I'm having trouble figuring out what it was. I've asked for a story ID here: scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/153320/… Might be food for thought. $\endgroup$
    – Ghotir
    Commented Feb 24, 2017 at 21:34

3 Answers 3


Any time you cure a killer, the % of being killed by the other killers goes up. Someone had a study with some medication and it seemed to be working (I think it was a heart medication) and the incidents of heart attacks dropped, but death by car accident went up significantly. It panicked the testers and they took if off the market.

They assumed, that even though there was no proof, that the medication was causing the accidents. When it is the exact scenario you want. True immortality will come when people only die in accidents (or intentionally). So as long as the treatment that increases cancer adds even 50 years on average to a life most would take it.

As it is cancer is Russian roulette and the longer you play the better your chances are of being shot. So as other health issues are reduced cancer becomes a bigger and bigger threat by default. We are also making great headway into treating cancer so even if you get it, that chances of dying continue to reduce.

If a very specific type of cancer is caused by this treatment, then it will be the primary focus of a large % of research funds to either prevent or cure it.


I've heard that same stat used for dying by being buried alive...as you fix other problems and become less vulnerable, the chance of dying from one of the other causes goes up.

The stat says nothing about immortality increasing your chance of cancer. If it did, then the 'eternal life' would have to be balanced against the decrease due to cancer risk. If this was negative, it wouldn't be worth taking the treatment.

The behavior changes seems a stretch, as we already live with not knowing when we die.


This wouldn't be anything like immortality. You already have about a 40% chance of getting cancer and half of the time it will kill you. (And I believe this is an understatement as they define "cured" in a fashion I don't consider acceptable.)

A vastly increased cancer risk simply means everyone dies of cancer.

  • $\begingroup$ You are correct that the chance of cancer would increase from 40% to 100%. The 40% statistic comes from the average life span of a human, but your odds of getting fatal cancer at a young age are are vanishingly slim. The vast increase in cancer risk would be a for a specific type of malignant, quickly progressing cancer. $\endgroup$
    – Dustin
    Commented Feb 21, 2015 at 17:33

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