Navigating the Legal Maze of Cancer

Joanna Morales

[NCSD guest blog post by Joanna Morales]

There are more than 15 million cancer survivors in the United States. As cancer treatments improve, there is increased attention 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 to improve the quality of life of cancer survivors.

When someone hears the dreaded words, “You have cancer,” the last thing they think about are the legal issues they may face due to their diagnosis.

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

Take Paul for example. Paul is 35 and has been working his way up the ranks at his company for 10 years since graduating at the top of his class from business school. He got 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 cancer. 

Paul’s diagnosis sends him reeling through a maze of cancer-related legal issues. As the maze twists and turns, Paul knows that he can’t take a wrong turn because he might 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 must now inch his way through the maze as he tries to figure out:

  • Can he continue working through treatment, or will he need to take time off work?  
  • Can he get a reasonable accommodation to help him continue to work through treatment?  
  • If he takes time off, is he required 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. At each turn in the maze another question arises for Paul and he isn’t sure where to turn for help. His health care team? His supervisor or the human resources department at work? 

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

Nonprofit cancer advocacy organizations, such as Triage Cancer (, provide information about practical cancer survivorship issues, such as employment, insurance, and finances. Triage Cancer provides free educational events, online materials and resources, and an educational blog about cancer survivorship topics. Triage Cancer also hosts an educational website to help people navigate finances after a cancer diagnosis (   

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.  

Joanna Morales, Esq., a cancer rights attorney and CEO of Triage Cancer, has spent more than 23 years working in the cancer community. Mrs. Morales was an adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School where she taught a seminar about cancer rights, and she worked for the John Wayne Cancer Institute’s Psychosocial Care Program. She has presented hundreds of seminars on employment, insurance, financial, and advocacy issues. You may follow her on Twitter at @TriageCancer.

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