The lowdown on benefits entitlement

In this guest blog post Tom Messere, Online Benefits Advisor at Maggie’s Cancer Care, introduces social security entitlements and benefits that can make a real difference to people of working age who are affected by cancer. This blog is adapted from the first of four for all ages available at

Cancer brings extra costs: trips to hospital, keeping warm at home, additional food costs, new clothes if your size changes or if you need surgery, and even the odd well-deserved treat when feeling a bit fed up.


Money can be tough when cancer is diagnosed. But benefits are there to help.

For those of working age, a long period of sickness – or time out if you are a carer – can also start reducing income, as even the best sick pay/insurance doesn’t last forever.

A Macmillan report found:

  • four in five people experience a negative financial effect of an average £550 a month
  • 30% also experience a loss in income of an average £860 a month

Claiming your entitlements can make a real difference. The problem with benefits is not the fraud that’s highlighted in the media (DWP put this at 0.7% of total spending). Rather, there’s a much bigger, more hidden issue of people not claiming what they should (estimates suggest some £25 billion a year). Don’t let that be you!

Barriers to benefits

There are many reasons why people miss out: not knowing which benefits might apply, ruling themselves out, hearing negative messages about claiming, or just finding the process too complicated. Others do claim, but may be wrongly turned down or underpaid.

There is a particular low take-up for means-tested benefits (due to extra complications and intrusiveness around finances) and disability benefits (linked to ‘well, I sort-of manage so I can’t apply’).

Hopefully this blog will encourage you to feel less overwhelmed, and enable you to seek out free, confidential advice.

Benefit myths

A cancer diagnosis doesn’t automatically qualify you for a benefit. Health-related benefits depend on treatment plans or an assessment of the difficulties you experience, and cancer-related issues can be hard to put into words. However, many people with cancer find they can claim something, particularly if they have assistance with their application.

You might get both a sickness and a disability benefit if you are too unwell to work much. As you recover you can do some work while still getting sickness benefits, but as you do more, these may stop. Disability benefits can carry on – even in full time work – for example if you are still experiencing late effects of cancer or treatments.

Some benefits do involve a financial assessment, but the majority do not. Even when finances are an issue, entitlement can go higher up the income scale than you might think.

But what if there are others who need the money more than me?

It’s quite possible that there will be others that need financial support more than you – and others who might need it less. Yet you may all qualify, perhaps at different rates. Benefits do not come out of a fixed pot, so you getting an award – or selflessly not claiming – has no effect on another person’s chances.

If I claim benefits, am I a charity case? Have I lost my independence?

It can be hard to claim benefits, especially with a lot of negative media coverage and political discussion. However, modern social security started at the same time as the NHS and was based on the same principles of ‘all being in this together’. You pay in over the years (your ‘contribution’) – and continue to do so while claiming – to get the financial and medical help when you need it. Think of a claim as the same as house or car insurance – all ways of sharing the risk.

But isn’t the benefits system impossibly complicated?

Benefits can feel like a maze at times. But with some information and advice it is far from impossible to make a successful claim.

Three steps to full entitlement

The benefits system can seem really tricky but it might help to think about applying for financial support in three stages.

man wearing black and white stripe shirt looking at white printer papers on the wall

The benefits system can seem really complex – but there are ways that you can get through it!

First, consider the basic non-means-tested benefits to replace earnings from work, when either you can’t earn at all or can only earn a little (e.g. when easing back into work after treatment).

These benefits include Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), Contributory Employment and Support Allowance (C-ESA), and Carer’s Allowance (for carers). They are also called ‘overlapping benefits’ as you might qualify for several but can only usually receive the highest.

Ask yourself: can I qualify? Which benefit is best for me? Is it ever worth claiming more than one?

Second, look at means-tested benefits and tax credits. These benefits:

  • Guarantee a basic minimum income either instead of SSP and C-ESA or as a top-up, e.g. income-related ESA when off sick or Income Support for carers.
  • Help with specific costs, e.g. children, rent, council tax, or health costs.
  • Can provide extra support to those in work. You can do some work while on ESA and then move on to Working Tax Credit when you can do more.

Big changes are afoot with means-tested benefits, as many of the benefits mentioned above are merging into Universal Credit (UC). Both systems run alongside each other until December 2023.

Ask yourself: Do I claim ‘legacy benefits’ or UC? And if I have a choice, which system works best for me? Am I claiming all the ones that apply? Have they got the sums right to include extra amounts relevant to me?

Third, consider other non-means tested benefits that can help with extra costs of daily living and getting around. Personal Independence Payment (PIP) is the main one in working age that can often apply after a cancer diagnosis. It is always non-means-tested, payable in or out of work and on top of any other benefits. It allows a carer to claim Carer’s Allowance and is ignored as income in means-tested benefits sums. Sometimes it can even increase entitlement to those benefits!

PIP is hugely underclaimed. It can be straightforward in many advanced cancers, but claims can be puzzling for the majority of people with cancer who face the full assessment. Expressing the difficulties that go with cancer can feel tricky, as they often don’t stop you doing things, but do make everything feel harder.

Ask yourself: Might I get PIP? Can I talk to an advisor before beginning an application? Can I look at other disability benefits, if my cancer might be linked to work history or service in the armed forces?

Benefits are not handouts, and you are entitled

A cancer diagnosis doesn’t guarantee benefits, but it makes some quite likely. Savings or a partner’s income might rule out some help, but never all help. It will be very rare for a Benefits Advisor to find nothing to support you.

Benefits can really help with the cost of cancer but myths, concerns and some media/political debate can all discourage claims. Add in worries about the process involved, reduced energy, and some dodgy decisions, and billions go unclaimed each year. Claiming helps you save NHS and social services resources too. Please don’t miss out!

You can find out more on all of the benefits mentioned and how to apply via further blogs and forums available at Maggie’s Community.

Good luck, and never knowingly underclaim!


If you would like to contact Tom and seek further benefits advice or support, you can do so via the dedicated area in the Maggie’s Community forums.