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What if I can’t work?

Some cancer patients, particularly those with a stage IV diagnosis, can no longer — or don’t want to — continue working. 

Although employers are required to provide “reasonable accommodations” under the ADA, they have the right to refuse certain accommodations if they are deemed to be an “undue burden” on the employer. If this is the case for you, you may be unable to continue working. You may also lose your job if you are on a temporary contract that ends and is not renewed.

Some patients also make a conscious decision to stop working due to side effects, or simply because they prefer to spend time with loved ones.

If this situation applies to you, finances are likely at the top of your mind. In this section, we will go over some of the resources that may be available to you.

Please note that this section is focused on US programs, and that the terms we use below reflect the language used by these programs. 

What financial support is available?

If you are no longer working, and think that you may qualify for federal or state benefits, the US government has a screening tool you can use to check which benefits you qualify for. You can access that screening tool here.

Here are some of the programs that are available:

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)

SSDI is available to disabled people who have worked for long enough, recently enough, and paid social security taxes on their earnings. In order to be classified as disabled, you need to have a documented medical condition that prevents you from working. This condition must be expected to last a year or more, or result in death. If you would like to learn more, see the SSDI website here

Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

In order to qualify for SSI, the same disability criteria above apply. You must be unable to work due to a medical condition expected to last more than a year or result in death. Unlike SSDI, SSI does not require a specific length of time working, or paying taxes. This benefit is intended for low-income families with limited resources, so to qualify, your income must be under a certain threshold. If you want to learn more, the SSI website can be found here.

Unemployment benefits

If you have lost your job due to reasons beyond your control, you may qualify for unemployment benefits. These payments can provide temporary financial assistance if you qualify. The eligibility criteria varies by state, so it’s important to look for local resources. For more information, you can refer to the US Department of Labor website here.

Food stamps (SNAP)

This benefit provides food assistance to low-income families. You will need to apply through the specific agency in your state that oversees the program. the USDA website has more information about the program, eligibility requirements, and how to apply.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)

This program provides cash assistance to low-income families that can be used for a variety of purposes. The eligibility criteria vary from state to state, so make sure to research local information. Apply through the agency in your state that oversees the program. See the TANF website for more details and how to apply.

Nonprofit organizations

The Colorectal Cancer Alliance maintains a comprehensive list of organizations that provide financial and other types of support. Download their guide here.

How do I get health insurance?

If you are concerned about issues related to insurance and medical expenses, one of the first things to do is have an open and honest conversation with your medical team and the social worker at your cancer center. Many cancer centers have financial assistance programs to help people pay for medical expenses. Your social worker should be able to help you navigate your situation and direct you toward local resources. Your team may be able to recommend lower-cost treatment options and prescriptions to help with high deductibles and co-pays.

It’s important to note that having cancer does not affect your ability to get health insurance.

There are also some organizations and programs you can look into:

Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA)

If you lose your job, you may be able to keep your old insurance plan for a limited period of time. COBRA applies to local and state employers of any size, and private companies with more than 20 employees. Some states also have laws that cover smaller private employers as well. Take a look at this handy chart from Triage Center.

If you qualify for COBRA, you can keep your insurance plan for usually 18 to 36 months. Although COBRA can be expensive, it may be a good option if you are already close to your deductible and/or out-of-pocket maximum.

Your spouse or parents’ healthcare plan

If you have a spouse who is working and has insurance through their employer, this may be an option for you. Also, if you are under the age of 26 and your parents have insurance through their employers, you should be able to get coverage under one of their insurance plans. They can apply for coverage for you regardless if you are married, single, living with them, or living independently. Keep in mind that coverage stops when you turn 26, so look for other options as well.

Disability insurance

Some people have private disability insurance plans that they have purchased through their employer. You should be able to cover your health insurance costs either permanently, or for a set period of time. Unfortunately, it is unlikely you will be able to purchase a plan after being diagnosed.

Affordable Care Act (ACA)

ACA provides insurance for people who do not have insurance from an employer and who do not qualify for Medicaid or Medicare. Most people enroll during the open enrollment period, but you are also eligible to enroll if you have experienced a major life change — such as losing or changing jobs, or moving to a new state. You can explore your options on the ACA website.


If you are 65 or older, you should be able to qualify for Medicare. If you have a documented disability, you may be able to qualify sooner. Check out the Medicare website for more information. They have an eligibility screening tool that you can access here. To better understand the factors you need to consider when enrolling in Medicare with a cancer diagnosis, see this article


Medicaid provides insurance coverage to low-income families. Eligibility varies state by state, and is based on a variety of factors such as household income, disability status and qualifying medical conditions. Low-income families, qualified pregnant women, children, and people receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) are eligible automatically. Some states have expanded programs to extend coverage to additional high-need groups. 

You can learn more about Medicaid on their website. You can also use this screening tool to see if you qualify. If you are ready to apply, create an account here, and you will be directed to the application process in the state you live in.

Options for veterans

If you are a veteran, there are some options available for you. Depending on when and where you served in the military, Veterans Affairs (VA) can provide healthcare coverage for veterans with or without a service-connected disability for cancer. As of August 2022, the PACT Act for Burn Pit/Toxic Exposures bill was signed into law, which added 20 new cancer types to the list of covered conditions — including all GI cancers. This allows veterans with these cancers to apply for potential benefits.

If you’re interested in learning more, take a look at the VA website.

Livestrong prescription card

Livestrong assists cancer patients with obtaining prescription medication at discounted prices. Learn more here.

Nonprofit organizations

The Colorectal Cancer Alliance maintains a comprehensive list of organizations that provide financial and other types of support. Download their guide here.

Want to learn more about working while in treatment?

Join one of our COLONTOWN Facebook groups:

  • The Billing Office is where we discuss things related to insurance, disability and social security
  • If you are an active servicemember or veteran, check out Military Service Station

Want to join? Fill out the registration form here.

COLONTOWN University has so much more to offer, from DocTalk videos with CRC experts to easy-to-understand explanations of biomarker tests. We’re here for you! See our list of Learning Centers here.

Last updated: April 12, 2023