A number of years ago, Lindy Yokanovich realized that it takes more than doctors to fight cancer.

Sometimes, it takes a lawyer.

The attorney was struck by how many people in her family had faced discrimination, insurance problems or financial ruin in the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis.

"They may have recovered from the cancer and its treatments," she said, "but the financial and legal [fallout] they experienced really took them aback."

With that in mind, Yokanovich founded the Cancer Legal Line in St. Paul, one of the first programs to offer free legal advice to cancer patients.

Now celebrating its fifth anniversary, the nonprofit has helped more than 850 cancer survivors or their families, she says. Its staff of "two and a half" lawyers, along with a small army of volunteers, have drafted wills, fought for insurance and disability payments, and even battled foreclosures.

"These [are] issues that really weigh on somebody's mental and emotional health," Yokanovich said. So getting legal help early can be "a huge stress reliever for our clients."

About half the time, the concerns can be answered over the phone, she said. The rest are referred to law firms that have agreed to handle cases "pro bono," for free. One big topic is estate planning: arranging power of attorney and guardianship.

Another is employment law.

"When someone's diagnosed, they're just terrified they're going to lose their job and with that their insurance and income stream," she said. Even with insurance, she noted, cancer patients may end up in bankruptcy. "It is a greased and buttered financial slope to financial ruin," she said.

The project (www.cancerleg alline.org) is funded by private donors and foundations. While there is an income cap for free legal representation, all phone consultations are free (651-472-5599). The goal, she said, is to "help people on the front end of things before they totally spiral out of control."