Disability, Work & Cancer: A Survivor’s Lessons Learned

Rodney Warner
Rodney Warner, JD

Social Security disability (SSD) benefits can provide you and your family an income while you’re unable to work because of cancer or treatment, but there’s a lot of fine print. If you expect to be out of work for at least a year, or your cancer isn’t curable, SSD is worth looking into. It’s a government benefit that you can apply for yourself or with the help of an attorney. If you’re of low income you may qualify for help from a local legal aid agency.

I was treated for cancer (Hodgkin’s lymphoma) and the side effects of treatment (most recently an allogeneic bone marrow transplant) from late 2000 through 2005. I made the right medical decisions. I’ve been in remission for 16 years. But I didn’t make all the right financial decisions.

The most important one happened before I was diagnosed. I didn’t buy disability insurance. I remember a phone call I had with a sales representative from an insurance agency that sold disability insurance to Connecticut state employees like myself. I think the cost was about $50/month, maybe less. I thought about, didn’t buy it, was diagnosed with cancer and that closed the door to such coverage (I could get it now, but it would be much more expensive). I lost about a year’s worth of income as a result.

After my second relapse, I was told by multiple doctors (with one exception) my only chance of a cure was a bone marrow transplant. I was also told because of its effect on my messed up immune system, I wouldn’t be able to return to work for a year. I was later told I should apply for SSD benefits by a hospital social worker.

I couldn’t accept the fact I’d be out of work for a year. I thought I’d power through the procedure and get back on my feet in maybe six or eight months. In addition, if you do start collecting and you’re able to return to work in less than a year, you’ll be asked to pay the Social Security Administration back the benefits you received.

We calculated we could live for a year on my wife’s salary and given my unrealistic confidence and the less than a year payback issue, I didn’t apply. As things worked out, my new immune system had more problems than expected and I was out for a year. I probably should’ve stayed out of work longer but that’s all the time my employer allowed. I could’ve collected SSD benefits and my family would’ve had more money.

If I made the right decisions, I would’ve bought disability insurance and collected SSD benefits. I would’ve applied for, and given the seriousness of my situation (if the transplant didn’t work, the disease or side effects of the procedure (or maybe a combination of the two) would’ve killed me), in all likelihood I would’ve been awarded benefits relatively quickly (though the disability policy probably would’ve required me to apply for SSD, then subtracted those benefits out of my payments because these policies don’t allow double-dipping).

Don’t make the same mistakes I did. If you’re healthy, seriously consider buying disability insurance. If you have cancer and expect to be out of work for at least a year (including if your condition is expected to be fatal) you should put learning about SSD benefits on your ‘to do’ list. This brochure provides a lot of helpful information. You can also talk to an attorney who helps those applying for benefits.

I was in a very tough medical situation. In 2003 a lymphoma specialist at a world famous cancer center told me a bone marrow transplant wouldn’t help me and I was terminally ill. Surviving without any long-term physical effects, in my mind, is a minor miracle. But the financial decisions I made were less than miraculous. Don’t make the same mistakes I did.

Rodney Warner, JD is a freelance writer in his 16th year of remission. He enjoys riding his bike through the gorgeous roads of Bucks County and spending time with his family. Rodney is active in supporting his local Gilda’s Club through fundraising events he hosts.

3 thoughts on “Disability, Work & Cancer: A Survivor’s Lessons Learned

  1. Hi Rodney. Thank you for sharing your story and experience with disability options. This is such helpful information for others going through a similar situation.

  2. Thank you for a wonderful blog full of important information. I wanted to share with you a webpage that has a lot of very interesting content similar to yours, I think you should take a look. Who knows? Maybe you find it useful for future blogs or you want to contact them to work together.


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  3. Thanks for this article!. Cancer is a very dangerous and tough disease that will collapse not only the patient but also his family. it damages will damage physically and economically. But luckily we are in a generation we have some Doctors, Hospitals which give the best treatment at a low cost. With the best treatment and Strong Inner Strenght, we will definitely win against Cancer.

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