Objective To investigate whether people diagnosed with cancer have an increased risk of death from non-cancer causes compared to the general population. Methods The non-cancer mortality of people diagnosed with cancer in Queensland (Australia) between 1982 and 2002 who had not died before 1 January 1993 was compared to the mortality of the total Queensland population, matching by age group and sex, and reporting by standardised mortality ratios. Results Compared to the non-cancer mortality in the general population, cancer patients (all cancers combined) were nearly 50% more likely to die of non-cancer causes (SMR = 149.9, 95% CI = [147–153]). This varied by cancer site. Overall melanoma patients had significantly lower non-cancer mortality, female breast cancer patients had similar non-cancer mortality to the general population, while increased non-cancer mortality risks were observed for people diagnosed with cervical cancer, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and lung cancer. Conclusions Although cancer-specific death rates underestimate the mortality directly associated with a diagnosis of cancer, quantifying the degree of underestimation is difficult due to various competing explanations. There remains an important role for future research in understanding the causes of morbidity among cancer survivors, particularly those looking at both co-morbid illnesses and reductions in quality of life.