Cancers can vary greatly in their transcriptomes. In contrast to alterations in specific genes or pathways, differences in tumor cell total mRNA content have not been comprehensively assessed. Technical and analytical challenges have impeded examination of total mRNA expression at scale across cancers. To address this, we developed a model for quantifying tumor-specific total mRNA expression (TmS) from bulk sequencing data, which performs transcriptomic deconvolution while adjusting for mixed genomes. We used single-cell RNA sequencing data to demonstrate total mRNA expression as a feature of tumor phenotype. We estimated and validated TmS in 5,015 patients across 15 cancer types identifying significant inter-individual variability. At a pan-cancer level, high TmS is associated with increased risk of disease progression and death. Cancer type-specific patterns of genetic alterations, intra-tumor genetic heterogeneity, as well as pan-cancer trends in metabolic dysregulation and hypoxia contribute to TmS. Taken together, our results suggest that measuring cell-type specific total mRNA expression offers a broader perspective of tracking cancer transcriptomes, which has important biological and clinical implications.