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Beating the odds: How to buy life insurance after being diagnosed with cancer

If you are among the majority of cancer patients who survive for at least five years following a diagnosis, you may face another battle: buying life insurance.

Finding decent life insurance quotes after a cancer diagnosis is challenging but not necessarily impossible. Your chances for securing a policy depend greatly on the type, stage and grade of the cancer, and even on the treatment plan.

Life insurance after cancer

Most insurers follow guidelines from the National Cancer Institute's "Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results" (SEER) database. It provides reports on nearly three million cancer patients. Oncologists, doctors and medical researchers across the United States submit reports to the database, in which nameless patients are assigned a number. Insurance companies then access the information for underwriting purposes. Insurers can review patient demographics, morphology, diagnosis stages, first-course treatments, tumor locations and follow-up procedures.

It's unusual if an insurer offers a policy to someone who is still undergoing treatment. If they have a good prognosis, they may become eligible for a policy. Life insurance companies often examine medical records and physicians' reports for breast cancer survivors seven years after a completed treatment. If the prognosis is good, the patient can ask for a re-evaluation and lower premiums.

Most cancer survivors who apply for life insurance do so after five years of being cancer-free.

Life insurance ratings with cancer

The life insurance policy and price you receive will hinge on the curability of your cancer. Certain types of non-melanoma skin cancer, for example, are considered very low risk by life insurance companies, and a skin cancer history may not impact premiums at all.

Life insurance companies generally use these classes to determine your premium:

  • Super Preferred (also called Preferred Plus)
  • Preferred
  • Standard
  • Substandard

There are usually ranges within these categories, too, such as "Standard Plus."

Depending on your type of cancer, the life insurer might add a surcharge, also called a temporary flat extra. The good news is that these surcharges automatically disappear after a set period.

Applicants with common and treatable forms of breast, prostate, testicular and thyroid cancer may be able to get a "standard" rating under ideal circumstances.

But patients with a history of leukemia or colon cancer may fall into a "substandard" or "high substandard" rating at best, or receive declines. Anyone with cancer that has metastasized likely won't be able to obtain a policy. 

Most insurers will not offer a policy to someone who is still undergoing treatment for cancer.

If you cannot get a life insurance policy on your own, you may be able to get life insurance through your employer at a "group" rate.

Cancer risk specialists

While any dedicated life insurance agent can search the insurance marketplace to find companies that will sell you a life insurance policy, there are brokers who specialize in finding life insurance for people considered "impaired risks".

Always check the financial strength of an insurer before you buy any policy to help establish the reliability of the claim payout.

Life insurance strategies for cancer survivors

There are ways to ensure you're getting the best premium possible for your situation, according to The Hartford and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center Survivorship Program.

  1. Gather all necessary medical records before you apply. This includes your first pathology report, medical records and treatment records. This will give underwriters the most complete picture of you, your health and your cancer history. Having all those records before you apply will reduce delays in the application process because your life insurer is going to request them and will wait for them.

    The less underwriters know about you, the more likely they are to assume you are a high-risk case and offer you high premiums accordingly.

  2. Make sure you follow your doctor's treatment plan to the letter. Your life insurer is not going to offer you a policy without seeing the results of your follow-up appointments.

    Similarly, if you've had breast cancer and you're due for a mammogram in December and you apply for life insurance in October, your life insurer will likely wait for the results of your next mammogram.

  3. Get life insurance quotes from many of the best life insurance companies. Policy costs can vary a great deal among companies.

  4. If you can't find affordable life insurance on your own, see if you can get group life insurance through your employer or a professional organization to which you belong.

  5. Consider a "graded" policy (one with an increasing death benefit as you get older) if you cannot get full death benefits. In the first few years of a graded policy, the company pays only the premiums and part of the face value if the insured person dies of a condition, such as cancer, that existed before the policy took effect. If the insured person dies after the specified grading-in period, the company pays the full face amount of the policy.

If your cancer has been successfully treated and you are in good health overall, several insurers may compete for your business.

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