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Is Cancer a Disability? How to Qualify for Benefits With Cancer

Written by
Jackie Jakab, Disability Attorney
Jackie Jakab
Lead Attorney
September 27, 2022  ·  5 min read
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Atticus offers free, high-quality disability advice for Americans who can't work. Our team of Stanford and Harvard trained lawyers has a combined 15+ years of legal experience, and have helped over 10,000 Americans apply for disability benefits.

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If you’ve struggled to work because of cancer, you may qualify for disability benefits. In 2022, 3.5% of workers received disability benefits for neoplasms — new and abnormal growth of body tissue, characteristic of cancer.

We’ll go over how the SSA defines cancer, when cancer can qualify you for disability, and what you should do if you think you qualify for benefits.

Is cancer a disability?

Yes, cancer is typically considered a disability due to the effects of both the disease and side effects of cancer treatment. Cancer refers to diseases characterized by the rapid growth of abnormal cells that destroy body tissue.

People with cancer are protected from discrimination by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Social Security Administration (SSA) also considers cancer a disability, which means it could qualify you for disability benefits. 

The SSA dedicates section 13.00 of its Blue Book to cancer (malignant neoplastic diseases).

How the SSA defines cancer

The SSA doesn’t technically provide a definition of cancer. Instead, they claim that listings in section 13.00 evaluate all cancers (more on this below) except those associated with the HIV virus (which are covered under a separate section).

Common types of cancer

The SSA provides an exhaustive list of cancers based on where the cancer originates from. Some common conditions include (but are not limited to):

  • Breast cancer

  • Leukemia

  • Lung cancer

  • Lymphoma

  • Prostate cancer

  • Skin cancer

For each of these conditions, the SSA has a list of medical criteria to disability applicants must meet to qualify.

Note that the SSA only includes examples of cancer they consider severe enough to prevent people from doing their job. This means there’s a chance your cancer isn’t on this list — but that doesn’t mean you can’t get disability benefits for your impairment. 

The SSA will still consider your case if you have an impairment that meets the criteria of a listing in another body system.

Can you get disability for cancer?

Yes, you can get Social Security disability benefits for cancer if it’s disabling, meaning that you’re unable to work or handle daily activities because of your condition.

You won’t automatically qualify for benefits just because you have cancer. You’ll need to prove how severe your impairment is to the SSA with medical evidence. 

Your best option is to work with a doctor (and likely a disability attorney) to properly document your condition.

See if your cancer might qualify for disability.

Criteria for getting disability with cancer

To get disability benefits for cancer, you must be able to show that your cancer is disabling.

For certain types of cancer, the SSA will consider it to be disabling until a particular point in time — for example, until at least 18 months from the date of your cancer diagnosis, or 12 months from the date of transplantation.

For listings that don’t contain such specifications, the SSA will consider the impairment to be disabling until there is no evidence of the original tumor or a recurrence (or relapse) and any available metastases for at least three years. If you have a recurrence or relapse, your impairment may meet or medically equal one of the listings again.

The SSA has specific criteria for each type of cancer listed but again, note that they only include conditions they consider severe enough to prevent people from doing their job.

If your cancer is severe enough that it obviously meets the SSA’s criteria for compassionate allowances, your disability claim can be expedited. We’ll go over what to do if your claim does, or doesn’t, meet these criteria in a later section.

How the SSA evaluates cancer claims

For each type of cancer listed, the SSA will specify the criteria required for you to qualify for disability benefits. Generally, they consider four factors:

  • Origin of the cancer

  • Extent of involvement

  • Duration, frequency, and response to anticancer therapy

  • Effects of any post-therapeutic residuals

To evaluate your case, they will need these types of evidence:

  • Medical evidence that specifies the type, extent, and site of the primary, recurrent, or metastatic lesion. When the primary site cannot be identified, the SSA accepts evidence of metastatic sites.

  • Copy of the operative note and pathology report for operative procedures (including a biopsy or a needle aspiration)

If you don’t have these documents, the SSA will accept the summary of hospitalization(s) or other medical reports. These documents should include details of the findings at surgery and if appropriate, the pathological findings.

In certain situations, the SSA will also ask for evidence of recurrence, persistence, or progression of the cancer, your response to therapy, and any significant residuals.

Some questions you may be asked:

  • When was cancer diagnosed? What stage was it diagnosed at?

  • Did you have a biopsy or procedure to remove cancer?

  • What type of therapy/treatment do you receive? Have you received updated scans?

  • Do you have a cancer health care team (oncologist, specialist, radiologist)?

  • Do you have long-lasting effects from treatment (more than 12 months)?

Cancer conditions that qualify for accelerated approval

If your cancer is severe enough that it obviously meets the SSA’s criteria, your claim might be expedited thanks to the Compassionate Allowance program.

Some Compassionate Allowance conditions include (but are not limited to):

  • Acute leukemia

  • Breast cancer with distant metastases or inoperable or unresectable

  • Esophageal cancer

  • Gallbladder cancer

  • Liver cancer

  • Ovarian cancer with distant metastases or inoperable or unresectable

  • Pancreatic cancer

  • Non-small cell lung cancer

  • Small cell cancer (large intestine, prostate, or thymus)

  • Small cell lung cancer

  • Small cell cancer of the female genital tract

Of course, you still need to submit a complete application with medical evidence to prove that your condition is severe enough to qualify for this initiative. You won’t, however, need to submit a separate application for the program — the SSA will flag your claim as Compassionate Allowance–based on your case.

My cancer meets the criteria. Now what?

If your cancer meets the SSA’s criteria, apply for disability benefits as soon as you can.

To determine if you qualify for benefits, take our 2-minute quiz. If you do qualify, we can refer you to an experienced disability lawyer. Our services are totally free, and you won’t have to pay the lawyer unless they win your case.

Typically, you’ll either apply for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). 

SSDI is generally available if you’ve worked at least five of the past 10 years, but can no longer work because of your cancer. On the other hand, SSI is income-based — which means you can qualify as long as you have little to no income. 

Learn more about SSDI vs. SSI.

What if my cancer doesn’t meet the criteria?

If your condition doesn’t satisfy the criteria above, you can still apply for disability benefits. The most important thing is to prove your cancer is disabling. 

The SSA will determine if your condition medically equals a listing, or if your current health still prevents you from working.

Unfortunately, qualifying for disability is difficult. Only about 20% of people applying for disability benefits win their claim on the initial application. 

You can always appeal — this is when you can submit new medical evidence and better argue your case in front of a judge. At this stage, you’re much more likely to win (nearly half of the applicants get approved after the appeal process).

Do I qualify for disability with cancer in remission?

As long as your cancer prevents you from working, you can qualify for benefits. If you’re in partial remission, but you still have symptoms that make it hard to work a job — you should still apply. 

If you’re unsure about whether or not to apply, or unsure of whether your symptoms will come back — we recommend getting an application started. The application process can be long — up to two years — and you’ll benefit from having gotten a start early.

If you’ve already applied for and are receiving disability benefits, remission shouldn’t immediately impact your benefits. 

Your cancer is considered disabling unless you go three years from the original tumor being present, fully in remission, without any cancer recurring. At this point, the SSA may reevaluate your eligibility.

How much is a disability check for cancer?

In 2022, the average disability check for neoplasms was $1,729.82. If your cancer qualifies for disability benefits, you can get up to $3,822 per month from SSDI, and up to $943 per month from SSI in 2024.

The maximum amounts for SSDI and SSI are set by law and are the same for every medical condition. Your actual disability check will vary depending on your work history (if you apply for SSDI) or your sources of income (if you apply for SSI). Some people can also qualify for and receive both payments.

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3 tips when applying for disability with cancer

There are a few things you can do to increase your chances of winning your claim:

  • Double-check if your cancer is a Compassionate Allowance condition so that your claim can be expedited.

  • Work closely with your doctor to ensure your medical records are complete and clearly show your symptoms, and to make sure you can gather the required documents for your application.

  • Work with a disability lawyer to maximize your chances of success, especially if your cancer isn’t listed in the SSA’s Blue Book, or you’re not sure whether it meets the SSA’s criteria. People who work with a lawyer are three times more likely to win their disability case.

Increase your chances of winning benefits by three times with the help of a lawyer.

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Jackie Jakab, Disability Attorney

Jackie Jakab

Lead Attorney

Jackie Jakab is Atticus’s Legal Director. She’s a licensed attorney, a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, and has counseled thousands of people seeking disability benefits.
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