When You Can’t Go Back to Work After Treatment Ends

June 9, 2016
Nicole Van Hoey, PharmD

Many people who need to leave work during cancer treatment expect to return to “normal life”—including work—after treatment ends. But, cancer can change this plan for many reasons. Sometimes, cancer treatments cause physical disability or too much fatigue to return to work. Other times, treatment side effects cause concentration or memory problems that make work too hard. Even when side effects do not stop you from being physically and mentally able to work, you might choose not to return to a stressful job yet, or ever. Stopping work for any reason is a big change that affects your financial security and well-being. share on twitter 

Disability and insurance options

Leaving a job often means leaving reliable income and possibly health insurance. Although federal programs like COBRA and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplaces offer private insurance coverage, they may be unaffordable for some people. COBRA extends your previous employer’s health insurance for a short time, usually 18 months and not more than 36 months. ACA options vary in price and coverage levels. People can sign up for ACA insurance outside of open enrollment periods when they experience a life change or qualify for Medicaid.

When private insurance from COBRA or the ACA are out of reach, disability insurance may offer a temporary or permanent financial solution.

Private disability insurance policies may be available from your employer. Policies like this must be bought before a cancer diagnosis. They will pay up to 2/3 of your income permanently or for a long time. The monthly cost is usually high, though, and you may need to pass a physical exam first.

If you are not yet old enough to qualify for retirement benefits from the Social Security Administration, you may still qualify for other federal Social Security programs, like Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits. SSI provides financial support for some blind or disabled adults and children. Benefits through the SSDI program:  

  • are available to adults with limited income and a medical condition that prevents work for at least 1 year

  • begin after at least 5 months of living with the disability

  • continue as long as you are unable to work

  • are taxable at some income levels

If you think you qualify for federal support, learn more at Disability.gov. Several nonprofits also offer financial assistance to people with cancer.

Finding acceptance and purpose

For some people, not working can be as challenging as dealing with lower income. Many people rely on their workplaces to build friendships and socialize. Not having that environment in your life can create a sense of loss. It is okay to ask for help adjusting to your new environment. Here are some key sources of support:

  • Friends and family, who can share new or favorite social activities with you.

  • A social worker from your medical practice or hospital treatment center, who can provide counseling, support groups, and coping strategies.

  • Coworkers or employers who are close to you, although it is okay to keep your cancer experiences private.

You may also find it rewarding to spend your time on a personal passion, learn a new skill or hobby, or volunteer. Local city or county centers frequently offer adult education classes and volunteer positions where you can build new schedules and relationships. Cancer-related groups also offer support and a way to give back. You can also find lots of social activities and clubs online, which can lead you to new hobbies and new people.

The anticipated work-cancer-work path is not for everyone, and support is available if you need or decide to stop work after cancer treatment. Remember, this new path can be challenging but is full of opportunity, too.