Advances in treatment and detection of breast cancer--and vastly improved survival rates--mean life insurance companies have changed their underwriting guidelines, making them more favorable than ever before for women who have been successfully treated for the disease.

The Hartford led the pack in 2005 when it became the first insurer to offer life insurance at standard rates for women who had been successfully treated for early-stage breast cancer. Other insurers have made similar changes. Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. recently announced a shift in its underwriting guidelines to make it easier for women to qualify for better rates.

Decades ago, women who survived breast cancer could qualify for life insurance, but they often had to wait many years after treatment to apply. In addition, they had to pay higher-than-standard rates.

Now when the cancer is caught early, it's possible to qualify for life insurance just one day after treatment is successfully completed. In more complex and difficult cases, you may have to wait one to five years to qualify.

In reviewing a life insurance application from a client with a history of breast cancer, insurers consider a variety of factors, including tumor size, whether lymph nodes were involved and whether the cancer spread to other parts of the body. They review pathology reports and want to know the date and result of the most recent mammogram, how the disease was treated and when treatment was completed.

Follow these tips if you have a history of breast cancer and want to buy life insurance:

  • Work with a trusted independent life insurance agent with experience helping clients in your situation. Life insurance agents who specialize in helping people with health conditions are called impaired risk specialists. Some life insurers have more favorable guidelines than others for breast cancer survivors. A savvy impaired risk specialist knows the market and which companies are most likely to serve your needs.
  • Compare life insurance quotes and comparable policies among insurance companies.
  • Consider quality, not just price. Talk to your agent about the life insurance features you need and which companies have the best reputations for service. Check life insurance company financial strength ratings. You want a company that will be going strong for the long haul.

Don't give up if you are still unable to qualify for affordable life insurance rates. Underwriting guidelines will continue to evolve, which may work in your favor in coming years.