Recently, cancer mortality has been compared to research spending by the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI), whose research budget is approximately pound sterling 250 million. The analysis shows a mis-match between mortality and research spending. As well as crude mortality rates, other measures of cancer burden should be considered because they contribute additional information. 'Years of life lost' (YLL) summed over each individual dying after a diagnosis of cancer represents a population-based mortality indicator of the impact of that disease on society. Years of life lost divided by the number of deaths for each cancer site produces an additional statistic, the average years of life lost (AYLL), which is a measure of the burden of cancer to the individual patient. For 17 cancer sites where data are available, four tumour sites have a rather large difference in mortality, comparing YLL to crude mortality. Years of life lost shows the population burden from cancers of the ovary, cervix, and CNS to be rather larger than suggested by crude mortality, despite screening programmes for cervix cancer. Using YLL, the underprovision of funding for lung cancer research is similar to that reported using percentage mortality. Breast cancer and leukaemia receive a relatively higher research spend than the population burden of these cancers, and the spending on leukaemia is quite extreme. Prostate cancer has a low per cent YLL but attracts a moderate amount of research spending. The use of AYLL as an indicator of individual cancer burden considerably changes the ranking of the mortality from different tumours. The mean AYLL is 12.5 years. Prostate cancer has the lowest AYLL, only 6.1 years; brain tumour patients have the highest, at just over 20 years. Comparing AYLL to research spending suggests four 'Cinderella' cancer sites with high individual cancer burden but low research spending: CNS tumours, cervix and kidney cancers, and melanoma. Breast cancer and leukaemia have roughly average AYLL but a considerable excess of research spending. YLL emphasises the discrepancy between research spending and mortality, and may be helpful for decisions concerning research support. Average years of life lost measures the burden to individual patients and may be helpful where individuals' needs are relevant, such as palliative care. As well as crude mortality, more subtle and comprehensive calculations of mortality statistics would be useful in debates on research funding and public health issues.