Finding Stability

Financial Advice for Cancer Patients: When the Breadwinner Gets Sick

Talk with your employer and financial counselors about accommodations you can get to help you through cancer treatment and recovery.

Getting a cancer diagnosis is devastating in many ways. As much as you try to live life as normal throughout treatment, your ability to continue working full time may suffer. This can be especially hard if you’re the primary earner for your family. To help you during this uncertain journey, consider some of this financial advice for cancer patients.

The Pew Research Center reported that in 60 percent of married households with kids under 18, both parents work. Whether you’re the breadwinner for your household or you bring in a necessary income, battling cancer affects your job. Cancer raises the probability of reducing your work hours and lowering your wages in the first few years. Research published in the journal Cancer found that total family income dropped at least 20 percent in the two and three years after a diagnosis, but recovered by year five.

So what can you do to ease the burden and make your way through the first few years of a cancer diagnosis?

Talk to Your Employer

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) protects your job if you need time off for an illness, but your employer doesn’t have to pay you for that time. You have up to 12 weeks in a year that can be taken as needed. If you have good health and disability benefits through work, staying employed may be the most important consideration. See what accommodations your employer can make, such as working from home some days or setting up flex time that allows you to make your healthcare appointments.

If you’re a caregiver, you’ll likely need time off and a change in schedule. Let your boss know what’s happening and what you need so you can see what accommodations your employer can offer you.

Apply for Disability

The American Cancer Society recommends not waiting until your disease affects your job performance to apply for short-term disability. It’s better to take time off to recover than to get fired for poor performance. Talk to human resources at your company about the process for short-term and long-term disability benefits.

You may also be eligible for social security disability, and your application may be processed faster because of a cancer diagnosis. However, you have to be disabled for six months before benefits begin, so apply as soon as possible.

Get Creative With Sources of Income

Are you staying employed but facing reduced wages? Are you living off disability only? How much money do you need to pay bills and buy food? You may find that you and your partner need to adjust your working lives, whether that means finding a new job or changing jobs. Knowing what you need will help you focus your search.

For instance, you’ll likely need a flexible schedule. You may look for part-time retail work, full-time work with benefits or self-employment. The gig economy is expanding, and you can work from home doing things like writing, bookkeeping, transcription or customer service. Consider renting a room on Airbnb, babysitting or dog walking.

As the breadwinner, it can feel like a blow to be out of work or have heavily reduced wages. Your priority is to care for yourself and recover. Be open with your partner (and therapist) about your feelings and financial struggles so you can work together to find a solution. This is a stressful time, but there is hope. You can always talk with a social worker at your hospital to get more financial advice for cancer patients.

Whether you're the breadwinner or not in our household, you want to talk with a financial counselor at your hospital to figure out how to navigate this tricky time.

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Patricia Chaney
Patricia Chaney