Pensive woman sitting in an office

It is crucial that those affected by cancer (or indeed their loved ones) are well-informed when it comes to their rights in the workplace and with respect to social security benefit payments. At a distressing time in life, it is easy and understandable that one might take their eye off the ball financially. However, knowing your rights is vital and can often mean the difference between keeping the support you deserve and facing financial ruin.

This article will focus on the key laws, rights, and eligibilities of US citizens. Because the legal framework surrounding health and employment (and indeed social security) differs widely from one country to the next, citizens of other countries are advised to seek out local information where available. offer excellent advice for Australian citizens, as does Cancer and Work for Canadians. Meanwhile, UK citizens can find information on their rights at work and social security eligibilities at Macmillan and Cancer Research UK respectively.

United States

Rights At Work

The National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship publishes an extremely useful and comprehensive FAQ that offers insight into your legal protection with respect to your job and your employer. It’s important to remember that legislation can change, however, and therefore reaching out to an organization like the NCCS for up to date advice is prudent. Also, consider contacting your union for advice (if you are indeed a member).

Here are some key facts (as of April 2018):

  • Under federal law and many state laws, your employer cannot treat you differently to others at your workplace because of your cancer treatment (current or prior). This applies to you as long as you are qualified for the job and are able to carry out all essential duties that go along with it. If this condition is met, your employer may be breaking the law by treating you differently to other workers in job-related opportunities and activities.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act is a key piece of legislation offering protection to workers affected by cancer from job-related discrimination. It applies to both private and public sector workers. However, it does not apply to employers with a workforce of less than 15.
  • In a job interview, a prospective employer is generally not permitted to ask you about cancer of your history of cancer. Under federal law, an employer is only permitted to establish whether you are able to do the job at the time at which you apply for it. An employer is permitted to ask you about your health history only if you have a visible disability that could reasonably be believed to affect your current ability to perform the duties associated with the job. In the absence of this, your employer may only ask detailed health questions after offering you a job.
  • The Family and Medical Leave Act offers protection to eligible workers who are seeking extended unpaid leave from their job to address their own serious illness or that of a close family member. You are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in any 12 month period if your employer has 50 or more staff and you have worked at least 25 hours per week for the last year.

Social Security Entitlements

If you are unable to continue working after your diagnosis you may find yourself navigating the complex system of social security benefits. Because this process can be challenging, it’s a good idea to seek expert advice from a financial adviser, your union, or the government agencies themselves. This help sheet from the American Cancer Society is a great place to start. The ACS also offers a ‘live chat’ facility and a staffed helpline to offer further support in your time of need. Here are some key facts:

  • Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) is available to Americans who have worked and paid into the social security system through paycheck deductions or through self-employment taxes. It is only available to those individuals with a qualifying disability. Although the approval process can take many months in normal circumstances, the Social Security Administration maintains a list of diagnoses that qualify for expedited review. This list includes various forms of cancer.
  • Nevertheless, SSDI benefits don’t begin until your sixth full month of disability. These benefits, therefore, don’t offer a quick-fix solution to your immediate financial situation.
  • The amount you’ll get is based on a calculation involving the number of years you worked and how much social security tax you paid.
  • It’s worth keeping in mind the potential downsides of an approved SSDI application. Your income with these benefits may exceed the threshold for Medicaid eligibility. This could leave you with problems finding insurance in the marketplace while you wait to become eligible for Medicare (24 months after your disability benefits application begins).

As always when it comes to financial planning and cancer, you should seek further details from relevant public and charitable bodies, starting with the Social Security Administration.

Individuals who don’t qualify for cancer-related SSDI benefits may still seek support in the form of Supplement Security Income (SSI). SSI benefits are designed for low-income individuals with a disability who don’t qualify for SSDI, usually, because they didn’t pay enough into social security in their working years.

At, we know how straining it can be to deal with financial issues on top of all the stress you’re facing from your cancer diagnosis. Although your physical health is of utmost importance, don’t neglect your mental wellbeing at this time and don’t be ashamed to seek support for mental health if you feel you need it at this difficult time.