To assess the risk of cancers associated with sleep duration using a meta-analysis of published cohort studies, we performed a comprehensive search using PubMed, Embase and Web of Science through October 2013. We combined hazard ratios (HRs) from individual studies using meta-analysis approaches. A random effect dose-response analysis was used to evaluate the relationship between sleep duration and cancer risk. Subgroup analyses and sensitivity analyses were also performed. Publication bias was evaluated using Funnel plots and Begg's test. A total of 13 cohorts from 12 studies were included in this meta-analysis, which included 723,337 participants with 15,156 reported cancer outcomes during a follow-up period ranging from 7.5 to 22 years. The pooled adjusted HRs were 1.06 (95% CI: 0.92, 1.23; P for heterogeneity=0.003) for short sleep duration, 0.91 (95% CI: 0.78, 1.07; P for heterogeneity <0.0001) for long sleep duration. In subgroup analyses stratified by cancer type, long duration of sleep showed an inverse relation with hormone-related cancer (HR=0.79; 95% CI: 0.65, 0.97; P for heterogeneity=0.009) and a greater risk of colorectal cancer (HR=1.29; 95% CI: 1.09, 1.52; P for heterogeneity=0.346). Further meta-analysis on dose-response relationships showed that the relative risks of cancer were 1.00 (95% CI: 0.99, 1.01; P for linear trend=0.9151) for one hour of sleep increment per day, and 1.00 (95% CI: 0.98, 1.01; P for linear trend=0.7749) for one hour of sleep increment per night. No significant dose-response relationship between sleep duration and cancer was found on non-linearity testing (P=0.5053). Our meta-analysis suggests a positive association between long sleep duration and colorectal cancer, and an inverse association with incidence of hormone related cancers like those in the breast. Studies with larger sample size, longer follow-up times, more cancer types and detailed measure of sleep duration are warranted to confirm these results.