A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Is cancer a disability? Sometimes

Is cancer a disability

Short- and long-term disability are resources available to help patients with cancer through the financial struggle.

Those with cancer often experience financial toxicity. This is when a patient has high medical costs not covered by insurance or less income because they cannot work full time. Financial toxicity often leads to debt and bankruptcy. Short- and long-term disability are resources available to help patients with cancer through this financial struggle.

To qualify for short- or long-term disability, you must not be able to work due to your disease, its treatment or its side effects. Depending on the severity and course of treatment, cancer may be a qualifying condition.

If you have questions about whether you qualify for disability insurance, talk to your oncology social worker for more information.

“Your oncology social worker can provide you with the tools and education to know how to apply,” said Kristine Tarter, oncology social worker at Marshfield Clinic Health System.

Short-term disability

Your employer may provide short-term disability or you may purchase your own policy. The Social Security disability program does not provide any benefits for a person with a partial disability or short-term disability.

Short-term disability can provide payments if you are unable to work for short periods or until long-term disability insurance starts.

You can contact your HR department or insurance company to submit claims for short-term disability.

Long-term disability

Social Security pays benefits to people who cannot work because they have a medical condition that is expected to last at least one year or result in death. Federal law requires this very strict definition of disability.

For some types of cancer, you may qualify for an immediate compassionate allowance decision that reduces the waiting time. For those that do not qualify right away, you may qualify later as you progress through the disease and treatments.

“Most of my cancer patients work as long as they can before they really take advantage of social security disability,” Tarter said. “A lot of times I have to advocate for them to apply even though it is a benefit they have paid into and it is a benefit for those patients that truly need it.”

For cancer patients, disease- and treatment-related symptoms could cause them to be immunosuppressed, fatigued, nauseated, weakened and unable to work a full-time job.

Health insurance

If you are no longer able to work, you probably will no longer have insurance. Those on long-term disability can qualify for Medicare two years after they start receiving their benefits.

For those two years, the choices are different for each person and situation. Some can qualify for COBRA benefits or they can purchase insurance through the Affordable Care Act marketplace. Others may even be eligible for state benefits such as BadgerCare in Wisconsin.

“I go down different avenues to find what works for them,” said Tarter. “Disability is important because it allows you to get your basic health needs met.”

Tips when applying for long-term disability

With Social Security disability, you can apply through telephone, online or through a social security office. Many oncology departments have an oncology social worker available that can help with initiating the application process.

People often ask when they will start to get an income. Most applications take 3-5 months to process. Once your application is approved, your first Social Security disability benefits will be paid for the sixth full month after the date your disability began. Your monthly disability benefit is based on your average lifetime earnings.

“I always tell my patients to go back to the first date they were unable to go back to work because of their diagnosis. In some cases, they will back pay you if it has been longer than six months,” said Tarter.

To talk to an oncology social worker about disability insurance, talk with a member of your care team.

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