Disability insurance and cancer

Navigating disability benefits after a cancer diagnosis.

Logan Sachon


Logan Sachon

Logan Sachon

Insurance Expert

Logan Sachon is an Insurance Expert and Senior Content Marketing Manager at Policygenius. She joined the company in 2018 as an Insurance Editor and has written extensively about insurance and personal finance for the Policygenius website and for the Easy Money by Policygenius weekly newsletter. 

A co-founder of The Billfold, a groundbreaking personal finance site for millennials that was named one of Time's 25 Best Blogs of 2012, she has been writing about personal finance for 12 years and specializes in millennial finance. She has previously held editorial roles at PR Hacker, Manifest, JCK Magazine, Bundle, HomeSpun Websites, and ModelPeople. 

Her work has been published in New York Magazine, Glamour, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, Yahoo Finance, Money Under 30, VICE, The Awl, The Hairpin, and more. She has appeared on WNYC and on podcasts including the Umbrex Unleashed Podcast.

Published September 28, 2018|5 min read

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Disability insurance can be an important safeguard to protect your income and livelihood after a cancer diagnosis — but only if you already have a policy in place.

If you receive a new cancer diagnosis and don’t have a private disability policy or coverage through your employer, you won’t be able to apply for a new policy until your current condition is resolved and your cancer treatment has stopped.

You may be able to receive some disability insurance benefits from your state disability program (five states and Puerto Rico have mandatory disability insurance programs) or through Social Security disability insurance (SSDI).

But once you get better, you can purchase a disability policy to protect you from future illnesses or accidents.

Read more:

Applying for disability insurance with cancer

If you have received a cancer diagnosis and need to learn about disability insurance options, the first step is to survey what coverage you may already have. There are three primary types of disability coverage:

Talk to your HR department about what coverage you have through work. If you have a private disability insurance policy that you’ve purchased on your own outside of work, look into claim requirements (more below).

Unfortunately, if you don’t have disability insurance or fear that the coverage provided by your employer won’t be enough, you can’t apply for a new disability insurance policy if you have a recent cancer diagnosis or are undergoing cancer treatment.

It seems unfair, but it makes sense. Disability insurance carriers are able to provide insurance because they use risk assessment to make policy and premium decisions. If you have a new cancer diagnosis or are currently undergoing treatment for cancer, the insurer can’t accurately assess your risk – the diagnosis is a big question mark.

Once you go through treatment — whether surgery, chemo, radiation or another treatment — and the cancer is in remission, however, that question mark goes away, and you can apply for a policy to protect you from future accidents and illnesses.

In the meantime, if your illness does mean that you’re unable to work, you can apply for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI).

Applying for disability insurance after cancer

Once you are in remission, have had your cancer removed or treated, and a doctor has given you the all-clear after a follow-up appointment, you can apply for a disability insurance policy to ensure that your income is protected from other health issues in the future.

Former cancer patients aren’t uninsurable, but applying for disability insurance with a pre-existing condition can mean that you’ll have higher premiums.

As with life insurance, when you initially submit your disability application, your quotes may seem very high due to your history of cancer. But a disability insurance specialist like the specialists at Policygenius can help you find the right carrier and build the right plan that provides the right amount of protection at the lowest premium possible.

There are several ways to lower your premium if you have a history of cancer:

  • Lower your benefit period

Depending on your health history, the disability specialist may suggest that you apply through a high-risk carrier and purchase a policy that only provides benefits for three to five years, instead of until retirement; then, once you have several years without claims, you can reapply for a more robust policy.

  • Step-graded coverage for illnesses

Another way to ensure you have coverage even with recent cancer on your medical records is to purchase a policy that will provide full coverage for injuries but step-graded coverage for illnesses. Step-graded coverage means that when you first buy the policy, you might have just 50% coverage for illnesses but full coverage for accidents, but each progressive year without a claim means you get more of the full coverage amount if you become disabled from an illness.

  • Exclusions

If you have a history of cancer, it’s very likely that cancer will be listed as an exclusion and won’t be covered by your policy. How specific the exclusion is depends on your history, including what type and stage of cancer you had.

It’s also important to note that exclusions can be narrowly defined, so even if you do get cancer again and have a cancer exclusion, it’s still possible you could file a successful claim. For example, if it’s determined that you can’t work due to side effects from chemo, that would likely still be covered by your disability insurance.

If you’ve had an aggressive cancer (lymphoma and neuroblastoma are two examples), it’s very likely that all cancer would be excluded on your policy. But if you had a localized cancer like thyroid cancer, then it’s likely that just thyroid cancer would be listed as an exclusion. But no matter what cancer you had, it’s worth applying and talking to a disability specialist.

We can help you can get disability insurance quotes, and a Policygenius disability insurance specialist can help you personalize your quotes to your needs.

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Making a disability insurance claim with cancer

A cancer diagnosis doesn’t guarantee that you can receive disability benefits from a short-term disability insurance plan, a long-term disability insurance plan or Social Security disability insurance. In order to make a successful disability claim and claim benefits, a diagnosis has to lead to a disability that keeps you from working.

To make a claim, you’ll have to get a statement from your doctor that explains your health status and that you’re disabled and unable to work. That info has to meet the requirements of your policy’s definition of disability. Some insurers may also require a statement from your employer.

If you have an own-occupation disability policy, you must be unable to work at your regular occupation or most recent occupation.

If you have an any-occupation disability policy, you must be unable to work at any occupation; this is a lot harder to prove.

A residual benefits policy means that you can receive partial benefits if your doctor says you can work, but only part-time.

Read more about how to file a disability claim.

SSDI and cancer

The Social Security Administration (SSA) uses a guide called the Blue Book to evaluate SSDI applications from people with cancer.

There are some cancers that can result in Social Security disability benefits with just a diagnosis. These cancers are listed on the SSA’s Compassionate Allowances conditions, and people with these diagnoses can be fast-tracked through the approval process.

Some Compassionate Allowances conditions are listed below — the full list of conditions that qualify for SSDI is available from the SSA:

  • Adrenal cancer

  • Adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma

  • Bladder cancer (with distant metastases or inoperable)

  • Breast cancer (with distant metastases or inoperable)

  • Esophageal cancer

  • Head and neck cancers (with distant metastases or inoperable)

  • Brain cancer

  • Kidney cancer (inoperable or unresectable)

  • Large intestine cancer (with distant metastases, inoperable, unresectable, or recurrent)

  • Liver cancer

  • Osteosarcoma (bone cancer) (with distant metastases, inoperable, unresectable, or recurrent)

  • Ovarian cancer (with distant metastases or inoperable)

  • Pancreatic cancer

  • Prostate cancer (with visceral metastases)

  • Small cell cancers

  • Small intestine cancer (with distant metastases, inoperable, unresectable, or recurrent)

  • Stomach cancer (with distant metastases, inoperable, unresectable, or recurrent)

  • Thyroid cancer

This list is just for Compassionate Allowance conditions for Social Security disability insurance. For all other types of disability insurance, claims are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.