Coping with Cancer As Someone with a Disability

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work

FEBRUARY 21, 2024

Nurse pushing woman in wheelchair

If you’re living with cancer and going through treatment, you’re protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as someone with a disability. The significance of your disability will vary based on your specific circumstances. For example, if you undergo a bone marrow transplant or receive CAR-T therapy, you’ll likely spend time in the hospital and have days where basic activities of daily life feel especially hard. For others, the down time they experience will be minimal. 

While many people living with cancer will recover from treatment and no longer need to claim disability, there are others who were disabled before being diagnosed with cancer which makes the situation all the more challenging. Those living with disabilities that present problems such as mobility issues or blindness will need to make adaptations that others never need to consider. It’s also likely that these folks will need to approach cancer treatment with a bit more planning and support. 

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 25.7% of Americans identify with having a disability. This presents a huge range of possible challenges and requires a variety of differing needs be met. For some people, the pandemic and resulting need for telehealth made life simpler. If mobility is an issue, for example, it’s much easier to speak to your provider from home than it is to contend with the logistics of transportation. This can also be true for those with hearing or vision issues as their home environments may be designed to accommodate them as best they can. Unfortunately, most cancer appointments – at least during the period of diagnosis, staging, and active treatment – must be conducted in person. 

For those living with serious impairments that require caregivers and/or round the clock help, this presents a new set of challenges as caregivers will need to learn about the realities of cancer treatment and be prepared to participate in medical appointments as necessary. Accessibility can also be a challenge. Though hospitals and other medical facilities are designed to be accessible for everyone, that does not guarantee ease of access. To ensure they receive the best care possible, care that is personalized to them, it’s important that patients learn to advocate for their needs and be as forthcoming as possible with their care team.  

  • Some things you may want to discuss with your doctor include:
  • What has been helpful for you in prior medical situations
  • What specific needs you have that may be different from others
  • Whether they’ve had experience caring for other patients with similar disabilities 
  • What resources are available to you, such as oncology social workers 

Being diagnosed with cancer is an overwhelming experience for anyone, especially for those with additional needs. If this is you, just remember that you’ve successfully managed many other challenges in life and that there are many people available to help. 

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
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