Navigating Cancer’s Financial Maze

There are more than 15 million cancer survivors in the United States. As cancer treatments have improved, increased attention is being paid to the field of cancer survivorship. What do survivors need? How can we support them and their families?

A 2005 report by the Institute of Medicine, “From Cancer Patient to Cancer Survivor: Lost in Transition,” recognized that employment, insurance, and financial issues should be addressed in order to improve the quality of life of cancer survivors.

In 2013, researchers at Duke coined the term, “financial toxicity,” to describe the financial burden that comes with a cancer diagnosis. Many people are unaware of their rights and the resources available to guide them through the vast maze of employment, insurance, and financial issues that can arise. And, most of those individuals are completely unaware of the long-term financial impact that cancer may have on their lives.

Take Maggie, for example. Maggie is 40 and has been working her way up the ranks at ABC Company for twelve years, since graduating from business school. She was married four years ago, had her first child three years ago, and bought her first home last year. Maggie has just learned, after an annual visit to the doctor, that she has cancer.

Maggie’s diagnosis drops her into a maze of cancer-related financial issues. As the maze twists and turns, Maggie knows that she can’t take a wrong turn, or she may lose her job, her insurance, or even her home. Overwhelmed by decisions that need to be made and deadlines that need to be met, Maggie now has to inch her way through the maze, trying to figure out . . .
• Does she have to disclose her diagnosis to her employer?
• Can she continue working through treatment, or will she need to take time off work?
• Can she get one or more reasonable accommodations to help her continue to work through her treatment?
• What are her company policies?
• Will her job be protected?
• Will any period of leave be paid or unpaid?
• Does she have access to disability insurance?
• Does she qualify for state or federal disability benefits to maintain her income?
• If she does take time off or loses her job, can she keep her health or life insurance coverage?
• If she does lose her health insurance coverage through her employer, what are her other options for health insurance coverage now that she has a pre-existing medical condition?
• How does she make choices among the health insurances available to her?
• How does she minimize her out-of-pocket medical expenses?
• How will she be able to pay her other bills or take care of her family?
• If she can’t work during treatment, how can she manage her student loan payments?
• What if she becomes unable to make health care or financial decisions for herself?
• How does she protect her family’s financial future if something were to happen to her?

The list of questions goes on and on. At each turn in the maze another question arises for Maggie and she isn’t sure where to turn for help. Her healthcare team? Her supervisor or human resources department at work?

Fortunately for Maggie, and the millions of other cancer survivors like her, there are organizations and agencies that can help her find her way through the financial maze of a cancer diagnosis.

Nonprofit cancer advocacy organizations, such as Triage Cancer (, provide information about practical cancer survivorship issues, such as employment, insurance, and finances. Triage Cancer provides free educational events, online materials and resources, and an educational blog on cancer survivorship topics. Triage Cancer also hosts an educational website that provides tailored information to help people navigate finances after a cancer diagnosis (

Cancer can be a life-altering experience. But arming oneself with information about their rights and options can help slay any dragons that may be hiding in the maze of cancer-related financial issues.

Joanna Morales, Esq. is a cancer rights attorney and CEO of Triage Cancer. Mrs. Morales has spent more than 24 years working in the cancer community, including as an Adjunct Professor of Law at Loyola Law School, teaching a seminar in Cancer Rights, and for the John Wayne Cancer Institute’s Psychosocial Care Program. She has presented hundreds of seminars on employment, insurance, financial, and advocacy issues. @TriageCancer