Getting Social Security Disability Benefits for Cancer

Cancers that are aggressive, inoperable or unresectable, that have recurred after treatment, or that have metastasized are eligible for disability benefits.

By , J.D. · University of Baltimore School of Law
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

While medical advances have resulted in earlier diagnosis, effective treatment, and increased longevity for cancer patients, dealing with cancer is still an emotionally distressing time for most people. Applying for Social Security may be the last thing on your mind after getting a cancer diagnosis, but the disability program is a resource you can use if you find yourself unable to work full-time during or after your treatment for cancer.

Is Cancer a Disability?

Some types of cancer are caught early and go into remission quickly with treatment, while others are in their late stages and don't respond well to invasive techniques like chemotherapy. If your cancer treatment and symptoms keep you from working full-time for at least twelve months, you may qualify for Social Security benefits.

People who've been diagnosed with a type of cancer should become familiar with three terms used by Social Security when evaluating disability claims based on cancer:

  • the Compassionate Allowances List (CAL)
  • the Listing of Impairments ("Blue Book"), and
  • medical-vocational allowances.

Depending on several factors—such as what kind of cancer you have and whether it has metastasized or recurred—you may qualify for fast-tracked, automatic approval of your disability benefits.

Other types of cancer that haven't spread or don't come back after treatment might not meet the standards for immediate approval, but may limit your work ability enough to get benefits under a medical-vocational allowance.

If I Have Cancer, Can I Get Disability Quicker?

Social Security's Compassionate Allowances List (CAL) is a collection of serious medical conditions, many life-threatening, that will automatically qualify a disability applicant for expedited approval of benefits. If you have a type of cancer on the CAL, you may be awarded disability in as little as a few weeks instead of waiting a year or more.

There are more than 50 different types of cancer on the CAL. Generally, you can qualify for a compassionate allowance if you have a listed cancer that has either spread to other parts of your body or is insufficiently responsive to treatment—for example, the cancer has come back after chemotherapy or can't be surgically removed.

Getting Disability for Cancer by Meeting a Blue Book Listing

Some cancers aren't as immediately life-threatening as those on the CAL, but are still serious enough that Social Security considers them automatically disabling—provided that certain medical criteria are met. These cancers are described in the agency's "Blue Book" list of impairments.

While your application won't be processed faster like it would be with a CAL condition, if you can establish that you meet a listing, you'll get benefits without having to show that no jobs exist that you can perform.

Social Security evaluates cancer under Blue Book section 13.00 for malignant neoplastic disease. This section contains listings for over two dozen types of cancer, as well as the medical evidence required to qualify for disability under each listing. You can find more information about the listing requirements for specific cancers by clicking on the links in the grid below.

Breast cancer

Colon cancer

Kidney cancer


Lung cancer


Skin cancer

Testicular cancer

Ovarian cancer

Simply having a diagnosis of cancer isn't generally enough to meet the listing requirements—the cancer must have either metastasized or be recurrent, inoperable, or otherwise untreatable.

Showing That Your Cancer Has Metastasized

If your cancer has spread to parts of your body that are far removed from where it originated—for example, you were diagnosed with lung cancer but cancerous cells were later found in your liver—it's called "distant metastases." The Blue Book refers to this as "metastases beyond the regional lymph nodes." You'll need to provide Social Security with medical documentation of metastases, such as:

  • a biopsy (live tissue sample) report
  • blood tests or lumbar punctures
  • an X-ray, MRI, or CT scan (if a biopsy is unavailable, such as in brain or bone cancer) showing the lesion
  • hospital intake and discharge records for any surgeries, and
  • clinical notes from your doctor showing that your lesion was medically treated as cancer (meaning with chemotherapy or radiation).

Because distant metastasis is considered a serious complication, evidence of a cancer spread is usually enough to meet the listing requirements, even if both the original cancer and metastatic tumor have been removed. Some metastases are expected to go away after chemotherapy or radiation, however. In these cases, Social Security may wait several months to see how well you respond to treatment before making a decision.

Showing That Your Cancer Treatment Wasn't Successful

Doctors describe a tumor that isn't able to be fully or partially removed surgically as "unresectable." If your cancer is unresected or your surgeon finds cancer cells at the edge of tissue that they originally thought was healthy, you'll qualify for benefits under a cancer listing. Tumors that are considered inoperable (ones that doctors can't surgically remove) will likewise satisfy a listing.

If your tumor is resected but then returns in an area near the site of the original surgery, or if it comes back after chemotherapy or radiation, your cancer will be considered "recurrent." Recurrent cancer qualifies you for disability benefits under most of the cancer listings, even if considerable time passed between when you were first treated and the date the cancer returned.

Getting Disability for Cancer Through a Medical-Vocational Allowance

Your cancer treatment may be effective in keeping the tumor from spreading or coming back, in which case you wouldn't meet the requirements of a disability listing. But common anticancer methods such as chemotherapy or radiation frequently cause severe side effects that can permanently limit your ability to work. If these limitations keep you from performing any kind of work, you may qualify for benefits under a medical-vocational allowance.

What's a Medical-Vocational Allowance?

Unlike disability awards based on CAL conditions and listed impairments, which only consider your medical evidence, medical-vocational allowances focus on the functional impact your medical conditions have on your ability to do a job. The foundation of a medical-vocational allowance is determined by your residual functional capacity (RFC), an assessment of the most you're able to do, physically and mentally, despite your limitations.

Cancer Treatment, Side Effects, and Your RFC

Most forms of cancer treatment come with significant side effects. Radiation can cause persistent joint pain, lymphedema, and nerve damage. Chemotherapy is virtually always accompanied by nausea, fatigue, and weakness, which can linger even after the treatment has stopped. Cognitive issues, such as memory disorders and slowed thought processes, are commonly reported long-term side effects of cancer treatment.

Social Security takes these side effects into consideration when determining your RFC. For example, if your radiation treatment was successful at eliminating the cancer cells but left you with nerve damage that causes pain when standing or walking, your RFC might contain a limitation to sedentary (sit-down) work. Or if you have trouble concentrating as a result of chemotherapy, your RFC may restrict you to unskilled jobs.

How Does Social Security Use Your RFC?

To determine whether you should be awarded benefits under a medical-vocational allowance, Social Security compares your RFC with the demands of your past work to see if you could return to that job today. If you can't, the agency will then need to see if other work exists that you could perform, given the limitations in your RFC.

Social Security considers factors such as your age, education, and transferable skills when deciding if you could do other jobs. Disability applicants 50 years and older may have an easier time qualifying for benefits under the "grid rules," while those younger than 50 generally need to show that they can't do the simplest, sit-down jobs in order to get benefits.

Evidence You Need to Get Disability for Cancer

Your medical records are the foundation of your disability claim. Let Social Security know the names, dates, and locations of every medical provider where you've gotten treatment for your cancer. Ideally, you'll be able to provide all clinical treatment notes from your oncologist (cancer doctor) as well as a medical source statement containing their opinion on your medical prognosis (expected outlook).

If your oncologist agrees to write a medical opinion for Social Security, ask them to include the following information:

  • the type of cancer diagnosed
  • what kind of treatment was used
  • how long you're expected to need treatment
  • any physical limitations you have, such as how much weight you can lift or how long you can walk for
  • what environments you should avoid, such as dusty or loud workspaces
  • what movements you can't perform, like bending, stooping, or reaching overhead, and
  • any mental limitations you have, like needing extra time to complete tasks.

Because treatment for cancer can sometimes cause other conditions to develop, make sure to gather records from your other medical providers in addition to your oncologist. For example, chemotherapy has been associated with long-term disorders of the heart, liver, and lungs. Radiation can cause vision problems, thyroid malfunction, and gastrointestinal distress.

Social Security needs to consider all your impairments when determining whether you're disabled, so it's important that the agency knows about every symptom that can affect your ability to work.

Can You Get Temporary Disability for Cancer?

Social Security doesn't award benefits for medical conditions that you recover from in less than 12 months, no matter how intense your symptoms are during that time. (In Social Security lingo, this is known as the "durational requirement.") So if your cancer is successfully treated without residual symptoms within one year, you won't be eligible for disability.

Once the agency is satisfied that you meet the durational requirement, however, you're typically entitled to benefits for at least three years if you meet a cancer listing.

After that three-year period, Social Security will reassess your case to determine whether you still meet the listing criteria. You may have your benefits terminated at this time if your cancer is in remission and you're able to return to work.

Even if the agency finds that you're disabled, you'll need to establish that you're legally eligible to receive benefits under the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs. SSDI eligibility is based on your work history and how much you've paid into the Social Security trust fund through taxes, while SSI is needs-based and available to disabled people who have less than a certain amount in resources.

Applying for Disability Benefits for Cancer

You have several methods to choose from when applying for disability. Many people decide to file online, or if you'd prefer to speak with a representative, you can call Social Security's national hotline at 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778 for people who are deaf or hard of hearing) between 8:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. You can also go in person to your local Social Security field office.

You may want to read up on some preliminary information before you file to make sure you're ready. The following articles can help:

While some disability claims for cancer are clear-cut and may not require legal assistance (as in cases involving stage IV or terminal cancer), most people will significantly benefit from hiring a lawyer. An experienced disability attorney understands how to prove that your condition meets a listing, or how to demonstrate that the side effects of your cancer treatment prevents you from working.

If you're worried that money will be an issue, it may help to know that disability attorneys generally provide a free consultation and don't charge a fee unless you win your case.

Updated March 7, 2024

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