The factors influencing cancer susceptibility and why it varies across species are major open questions in the field of cancer biology. One underexplored source of variation in cancer susceptibility may arise from trade-offs between reproductive competitiveness (e.g. sexually selected traits, earlier reproduction and higher fertility) and cancer defence. We build a model that contrasts the probabilistic onset of cancer with other, extrinsic causes of mortality and use it to predict that intense reproductive competition will lower cancer defences and increase cancer incidence. We explore the trade-off between cancer defences and intraspecific competition across different extrinsic mortality conditions and different levels of trade-off intensity, and find the largest effect of competition on cancer in species where low extrinsic mortality combines with strong trade-offs. In such species, selection to delay cancer and selection to outcompete conspecifics are both strong, and the latter conflicts with the former. We discuss evidence for the assumed trade-off between reproductive competitiveness and cancer susceptibility. Sexually selected traits such as ornaments or large body size require high levels of cell proliferation and appear to be associated with greater cancer susceptibility. Similar associations exist for female traits such as continuous egg-laying in domestic hens and earlier reproductive maturity. Tradeoffs between reproduction and cancer defences may be instantiated by a variety of mechanisms, including higher levels of growth factors and hormones, less efficient cell-cycle control and less DNA repair, or simply a larger number of cell divisions (relevant when reproductive success requires large body size or rapid reproductive cycles). These mechanisms can affect intra- and interspecific variation in cancer susceptibility arising from rapid cell proliferation during reproductive maturation, intrasexual competition and reproduction.