How can I get financial help with basic living expenses as a cancer patient that is permanently disabled?

1 answer | Last updated: Nov 11, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

If I'm permanently disabled by cancer and unable to return to work, what financial help and resources are available to help me with my basic living expenses?

Expert Answers

Senior Editor Melanie Haiken, who is responsible for's coverage of cancer, general health, and family finance, discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions.

If battling cancer has left you unable to work, this is considered a medical disability. However, you'll need to work with your doctor to establish your disabled status with your employer and with the state and federal governments. Here's what to do:

Apply for Social Security Disability Income (SSDI).

This government assistance is available to those who have been unable to work for six months or more. You have to be on SSDI to apply for Medicare, so it's a necessary first step. The process of getting on SSDI is s­low and cumbersome, so you want to begin it as soon as you know you won't be returning to work -- you don't want to go too long without any money coming in.

Cancer patients qualify for SSDI based on a series of criteria having to do with the ability to do physical tasks. If your application is rejected the first time, appeal. Many cancer patients are turned down for SSDI the first time, then accepted on appeal. You'll need your doctor's support for this application.

Investigate Medicare.

Although most people think of Medicare as being for those age 65 and over, it's also available to those who qualify as disabled. However, you have to be "permanently disabled," defined as being out of work for 24 months and on SSDI, in order to apply. Call (800) 633-4227 to discuss your situation.

Apply for COBRA to keep your health insurance.

If you take temporary leave and then determine that you'll be unable to return to work, it's very important to notify your employer that you wish to keep your employer-sponsored health insurance through COBRA in time to take advantage of the 60-day window (which begins after the last day of coverage provided by an employer's plan). According to a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, many cancer patients miss the 60-day deadline to apply for COBRA. Then they're stuck trying to find an individual plan, which may be very difficult -- or impossible -- for those who've received a cancer diagnosis. Even if you do get accepted for an individual policy, these tend to have high premiums, less coverage, and more cost-sharing, so you want to keep your employer-sponsored insurance if at all possible.

As of March 2009, there's special help for anyone who lost a job between September 1, 2008, and December 31, 2009. Thanks to the Recovery Act, the government will pay 65 percent of COBRA premiums for those who qualify, leaving you responsible for just 35 percent of the premium. Even better, if you meet the qualifications and have been paying 100 percent of your COBRA premium, the government will retroactively reimburse you for that 65 percent.

Ask about long-term disability policies.

Before you leave your job permanently, find out if your employer has a long-term disability policy. This type of disability pays 60 to 70 percent of your former income, much better than many other forms of assistance.

Apply for other government aid.

If your family needs help with basic needs such as food and supplies, contact
your local Department of Human Services or Welfare Unit to apply for food stamps and other benefits. Go to or call (877) 696-6775.

Look for grant assistance.

There are many other financial resources available to cancer patients, with eligibility requirements based on income and assets. So once you're no longer working and receiving only disability or social security, you may qualify for additional grants. Start with national organizations such as:

  • CancerCare. This arm of the American Society of Clinical Oncology has a number of different programs. Some cover the cost of cancer treatment expenses, and these tend to be earmarked for certain types of cancer. But they also have financial aid to help patients pay for transportation, childcare, or home care expenses incurred during therapy. Go to or call (800) 813-4673 for an application.
  • American Cancer Society. This organization functions more as a referral service, offering information about a variety of programs, both national and local. Special programs are available to help with wigs, transportation, and other services. Go to [](http:// or call (800) 227-2345.
  • United Way. Use United Way as a clearinghouse to find local and national programs they fund. Start by going to and entering your zip code to find your local United Way agency.

Investigate assistance for specific types of cancer.

Financial assistance programs of varying types covering co-pay assistance, transportation, home care, and childcare are offered by many cancer organizations, such as the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the National Brain Tumor Society, and the Sarcoma Alliance. Use the Internet to search on the type of cancer you have and terms such as financial assistance and financial aid. Make a list of the organizations, order the list in terms of the likelihood that you meet their criteria and the size of the grants they offer, and start applying.