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Whether your disability from cancer is expected to be short- or long-term, it helps to know the differences between the two and understand how to apply for each type of disability benefit.

Short-Term Disability Due To Cancer

Short-term disability insurance is designed to supplement a portion of your income you will loose if you need a brief medical leave from work, usually up to six months. Your employer may hold your position for you during this period, since you expect to return to work. However, they are only legally required to keep your position open if you are taking your 12 weeks of FMLA Leave.  

Short-term disability insurance (STDs) can be purchased individually, administered through your employer, or provided by your state or territory. Currently only California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Puerto Rico have state run short-term disability programs.  Programs vary and the definition of disability as well as your benefits will depend upon your specific plan. Generally, STD programs will cover up to 26 weeks away from work and pay between 55 and 100 percent of your wages. Some plans start immediately, while others have a waiting period before benefits start. Some pay at a higher percentage for the first several weeks or months before dropping to a lower percentage, based on your length of employment.

Since procedures and policies differ from plan to plan, you'll need to get acquainted with the particulars of yours, including the type of paperwork you'll need to complete, buzz words to include on forms to ensure that you get benefits and relevant filing deadlines. Look for program details on your state's Department of Labor website. Visit for your state's contact information.  To see if your employer offers a plan, contact your human resources or employee benefits office.

Long-Term Disability Due To Cancer

Similar to short term disability insurance, long-term disability plans can be purchased individually or offered by employers.  There are also two federal disability insurance programs that are administered by the federal government: Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).  To be eligible for either of these programs you must meet the Social Security Administration's (SSA) definition of a disability, which is having an illness or injury that's expected to last 12 months or longer, or it's predicted to be terminal. 

In addition to having a disability, to qualify for SSDI, you'll need to have worked and contributed to Social Security through past paychecks for a certain number of years, which is based upon your age.  Qualifying for SSI is based on your income level and not your work history. 

The SSA will ask the following questions in order to determine if you are eligible for either SSDI or SSI: 

  • Are you  working? If you are and you make over a certain dollar amount per month, you generally can't be considered disabled.
  • Is your condition “severe”?
  • Is it found on the list of impairments which the government maintains (i.e., the compassionate allowances list)?
  • Can you do the same work that you did previously? If so, your claim will likely be denied.
  • Can you do other types of work? If you can, your claim will likely be denied.

The Social Security Administration recommends that you apply for disability benefits as soon as you become disabled, because the process can take several months. To find out how to apply for a federal long-term disability program, visit

Take advantage of help along the way.

Figuring out benefits and programs can be confusing, especially when some may seem to overlap. Take advantage of a host of resources to help. Among them:

  • To get up to speed on Social Security disability benefits, see an online booklet published by the Social Security Administration at Included is information on who is eligible, how to apply, what you need to know when the benefits begin.
  • Some cancer centers and hospitals may offer programs to help you decipher disability programs. Call the cancer center or hospital operator to inquire, or ask your oncologist.
  • Hire an attorney to help with an appeal.  Disability attorneys can be found through your local or state bar association's lawyer referral service.  These attorneys are required to provide assistance on a contingency basis, which means that they only get paid if they help get you past benefits.