The short answer is that skin cancer does not necessarily have to spread in order to get disability benefits, but the long answer is more complicated. Let's first look at the way the Social Security Administration (SSA) decides whether your skin cancer is disabling.
The most direct way the SSA finds that you are disabled for purposes of receiving disability benefits is if your impairment or medical condition meets a certain severity level. For skin cancer, your condition will meet the SSA’s severity level if you have been diagnosed with:
So you can meet the severity listing for skin cancer even if your cancer has not spread, IF you have been diagnosed with melanoma and, in certain situations, it has come back after surgical removal.
For more information on the requirements regarding recurrent or metastasized cancer, see our article on how Social Security assesses the different stages of cancer.
Alternatively, if you don't meet the criteria listed above to meet the SSA's skin cancer listing, the SSA will look at your “residual functional capacity,” or “RFC.” The SSA assesses your RFC and then uses it to determine what you are still capable of doing in an employment situation, taking into account the limitations from your impairment.
Although most skin cancers that cause severe physical limitations would meet the severity listing above, it is possible that someone with skin cancer has significant impairments associated with skin cancer and its treatment but does not have metastatic or recurrent skin cancer. For instance, if you have skin cancer in an eye that required removal of the eye, you would be limited in work you could do that requires good binocular vision. In other cases, areas of skin that have been treated for cancer should not be in contact with certain chemicals or with water for extended periods of time. Some people may have limitations based on amputations; people who have legs or feet removed due to skin cancer are usually limited in how long they can stand or walk.
These are all limitations that affect your RFC, and the SSA will take those limitations into account when determining whether or not you are able to go back to your prior job. (In this case, whether your cancer is metastatic or recurrent is irrelevant.) If the SSA finds that you are not capable of performing any job you used to have in the last 15 years, you have a chance of getting disability benefits. The SSA will then look at your age, education and experience and will see if you are able to do any kind of work. If the SSA determines that your impairment and the symptoms associated with your impairment are so limiting that there is no job you can perform, you will be awarded benefits under what is called a "medical-vocational allowance."