Navigating the Legal Maze of Cancer

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There are over 12 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?

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.

When people hear the dreaded words, “you have cancer,” the last thing, if at all, people think about are the legal issues that they may face because of their diagnosis.

Many of those people are unaware of their rights and the resources available to assist them through the vast maze of legal, employment, and insurance systems, and most of those individuals are completely unaware of the financial impact that cancer may have on their lives.

Take Paul, for instance. Paul is 35 and has been working his way up the ranks at ABC Company for ten years, since graduating from business school at the top of his class. He was married three years ago, had his first child two years ago, and bought his first home last year.

Paul has just learned, after an annual visit to the doctor, that he has a thyroid cancer.

Paul’s diagnosis sends him reeling down a path in a maze of cancer-related legal issues. As the maze twists and turns, Paul knows that he can’t take a wrong turn, or he may lose his job, his insurance, or even his home.

Overwhelmed by decisions that need to be made and deadlines that need to be met, Paul now has to inch his way down the road in front of him, and is trying to figure out some answers to these questions.

  • Can he continue working through treatment, or if he will need to take time off work?
  • Can he get a reasonable accommodation to help him continue to work through his treatment?
  • If he takes time off, does he have to disclose his diagnosis to his employer?
  • What are his company policies?
  • Will his job be protected?
  • Will any period of leave be paid or unpaid?
  • If he does take time off or loses his job, can he keep his health or life insurance coverage?
  • If he does lose his health insurance coverage through his employer, what are his other options for health insurance coverage now that he has a pre-existing medical condition?
  • Does he qualify for state or federal disability insurance benefits to maintain his income?
  • How will he be able to pay his bills or take care of his family?
  • What if he becomes unable to make health care or financial decisions for himself?

The list of questions goes on and on. At each turn in the maze another question/issue/potential problem arises for Paul, and he isn’t sure where to turn for help. His health care team? His supervisor or human resources department at work?

Fortunately for Paul, and the millions of other cancer survivors like him, there are organizations and agencies stationed out there in the maze that can help him find his way.

Nonprofit organizations such as the Cancer Legal Resource Center (CLRC) can help people understand their options and rights. The CLRC provides a national Telephone Assistance Line (866-843-2572) where people can get free information and resources to address their cancer-related legal issues, including navigating the legal issues in the workplace.

Cancer and Careers is another nonprofit organization that specifically focuses on the practical issues related to work and cancer, including disclosure, balancing cancer and careers while working through treatment, and free online job search tools and career coaching for those seeking employment.

In order to help people figure out what health insurance options are available to them based on their specific situation, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services has created a new online portal. This website was created under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (health care reform) and provides information about specific health insurance options as well as information about recent health care reforms.

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

This post was contributed by Joanna L. Morales, Esq., who serves the cancer community as a cancer rights attorney, advocate, speaker and author for over 18 years. She was formerly the Director of the Cancer Legal Resource Center and an Adjunct Professor at Loyola Law School.

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Navigating the Legal Maze of Cancer