Social Security Disability Benefits for Lung Cancer

Several types of lung cancer automatically qualify for disability benefits.

Lung cancer is a particularly debilitating type of cancer that occurs in your lungs. A past history of smoking can greatly increase the possibility of obtaining this cancer. Or, you may be at risk for lung cancer if you have been exposed to asbestos, significant air pollution, arsenic, and other kinds of cancer-causing chemicals. Lung cancer also runs in families.

Symptoms and Treatment

If you have an early stage of lung cancer, you may have few symptoms. Later stages of lung cancer include such symptoms as a recurring cough, a cough that contains blood, tiredness and weakness, bone and joint pain, and difficulty with swallowing. Your doctor can diagnose lung cancer through the use of a bone scan, chest x-ray, a chest computerized tomography (CT) scan, or chest magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The two main types of lung cancer are non-small cell lung cancer and small cell lung cancer. Non-small cell lung cancer is present in more than 80% of lung cancers and spreads slowly throughout the body. In contrast, small cell lung cancer is an aggressive and less common form of cancer. In turn, there are two types of small cell cancer:

  • small cell carcinoma, or oat cell cancer, and
  • combined small cell carcinoma.

Treatment for the various types of lung cancer may consist of surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.

Obtaining Disability Benefits with Lung Cancer

You may be eligible to receive Social Security disability (SSDI/SSD) benefits or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits through the Social Security Administration (SSA). To pass the SSA's initial eligibility screening test for disability benefits, you must have been diagnosed with lung cancer, the condition must have lasted for at least a year (or be expected to last a year), and you must be unable to work. Next, to medically qualify for benefits based on lung cancer, you'll need to meet the disability listing for lung cancer or have a residual functional capacity (RFC) that doesn't allow you to work. In addition, certain types of lung cancer can medically qualify through the Compassionate Allowances program.

Qualifying Under the Compassionate Allowances Program

Once you submit your application for disability benefits, the SSA will determine whether you can be granted fast-track benefits through the Compassionate Allowances program. To qualify for this program, you must have medical proof of one of the following:

  • You have non-small cell lung cancer that has spread to or beyond the hilar lymph nodes or is considered inoperable (surgery no longer useful), unresectable (cancer not removable), or has been recurring.
  • You have small cell lung cancer.

The SSA will require a pathology report and operative report from your doctor that documents the presence of these types of cancer. If your doctors' reports indicate one of the above diagnoses, you'll be automatically approved for disability benefits.

For more information on the requirements regarding inoperable, unresectable, recurrent, or metastasized tumors, see our article on when cancer qualifies for disability benefits.

Meeting the Disability Listing for Lung Cancer

If you don't qualify for the expedited Compassionate Allowances program, the SSA will determine if your lung cancer fits its disability listing for lung cancer in its Listing of Impairments. In addition to the medical requirements found under the Compassionate Allowances program (see above), the SSA will grant automatic benefits if you have been diagnosed with a type of non-small cell lung cancer that occurs in the superior sulcus, which is located at the top of the lung. This type of cancer is also called a Pancoast tumor. You must present medical evidence that you have been undergoing different forms of antineoplastic therapy (therapy to prevent the growth of tumors) to qualify for benefits based on a superior sulcus tumor.

When Your RFC Doesn't Allow You to Work

If your lung cancer does not match the requirements needed under the Compassionate Allowances program or the Listing of Impairments (for instance, you have non-small cell lung cancer that has not spread and is likely to be resectable), the SSA will assess your "residual functional capacity" (RFC) to see if you can work. Your RFC is the most that you can do in a work setting. The SSA will place you in a category of sedentary, light, or medium work. To do this, the SSA will determine how long you can sit, stand, and walk; how well you can use your arms and hands; how well you can interact with other people; and how well you can follow and understand instructions.

When you have lung cancer, you might suffer from severe fatigue that prevents you from walking and standing for long periods of time. As such, your RFC could be stated as sedentary or less than sedentary. Generally, you will need to be found capable of less than sedentary work to be eligible for disability benefits, unless you are over age 50.

Alternatively, if you are so tired that you would be unable to work a regular 40-hour work week, or you would have to miss several days of work during a month, you could be found disabled. In addition, you might have respiratory problems that affect the type of setting in which you can work. (Many lung cancer patients also have emphysema or chronic bronchitis.) If you have respiratory problems, you might be unable to work around fumes or gases. This type of information would need to be included in your RFC. This information would reduce the number of jobs that you could perform.

Medical Opinions and Lung Cancer

Getting a proper RFC assessment from the SSA is key to getting disability benefits, unless you qualify under the Compassionate Allowances program or the Listing of Impairments. Thus it's important for you to get an RFC opinion from your treating doctor that states how much work you can perform. The SSA will give significant weight to these medical opinions if they are consistent with the rest of your medical history and they are supported by objective evidence. If you are unable to afford medical treatment, the SSA will likely send you out on a consultative examination to gather more information about whether you have lung cancer and how it affects your ability to work.

Your doctor might have you undergo different types of therapy to treat your lung cancer. If so, it is critical for you to tell your doctor whether you are suffering from any side effects from treatment. Possible side effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy can include nausea and fatigue. The SSA must consider these side effects when reviewing your disability application. If your side effects are severe, they can lead to a finding of disability.

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