Social Security Disability Benefits and Cancer

July 12, 2017
a seated older woman smiling and talking on the phone

For the latest on our free resources about financial and other issues facing patients and their loved ones, please sign up for our email newsletter on our website:

By: Deanna Power, Director of Outreach, Disability Benefits Help

If you have been diagnosed with cancer, you may be wondering if you’ll qualify for Social Security disability benefits. Unfortunately, the answer may not be a simple yes or no. The Social Security Administration (SSA) has different eligibility criteria for each applicant. Some people will qualify for disability benefits with just a cancer diagnosis, but others will need biopsy reports or physicians’ notes proving the cancer is advanced or recurrent to be approved. Your eligibility will depend on your unique form and stage of cancer.


Medical Qualification with the Blue Book

The SSA uses a medical guide called the Blue Book to evaluate every cancer applicant to determine if he or she is eligible for financial assistance. Fortunately, the entire Blue Book is online, so you may be able to see if you qualify today.

Cancers that are aggressive or historically hard to treat will qualify with just a diagnosis. If you have been diagnosed with one of the following cancers, you should automatically, medically qualify for disability benefits:

  • Esophageal cancer
  • Gallbladder cancer
  • Brain cancer
  • Inflammatory breast cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Salivary cancers
  • Sinonasal cancer
  • Any small cell cancer
  • Thyroid cancer

Other cancers will need additional medical evidence to be approved. For example, non-small cell lung cancer will typically need to be inoperable, have spread to another organ, or have returned despite three months’ chemotherapy or other treatment to qualify.

All cancer listings can be found in Section 13.00 of the SSA’s Blue Book. Be sure to review the medical resource with your oncologist to get a good idea as to whether or not you’ll be approved.

Are you a cancer survivor? Tell us your story in a short video, photo, or text.





Approval without the Blue Book

If your cancer was diagnosed at an earlier stage, you may still qualify for disability benefits. The SSA has what’s called a “Medical Vocational Allowance,” which is a medical approval based on an applicant’s inability to perform any work that he or she is qualified for due to an illness that will last at least 12 months.

Much like meeting a Blue Book listing varies depending on who is applying, qualifying under a Medical Vocational Allowance will vary depending on your age, work history, and how much your cancer and its treatment limit you from earning income.

Older adults—age 50+—with cancer will have an easier time qualifying under a Medical Vocational Allowance because the SSA believes it’s harder for people over age 50 to get retrained for another job. People without college degrees will also have an easier time qualifying, as the SSA will see a college degree as evidence that someone possesses the skill to keep a desk job during treatments.  Finally, if you’ve only worked active and physically demanding jobs, you’ll have better luck qualifying for a Medical Vocational Allowance, as it’s more likely you’ll be too ill to work on your feet all day than someone who has sedentary work and applies with cancer.

Medical Vocational Allowances rely heavily on results from a Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) evaluation. This SSA-standard form looks at your ability to sit, stand, walk, carry weight, and more. You can download an RFC online for your primary care physician or oncologist to fill out on your behalf before applying.


Starting Your Application

The easiest way to apply for disability benefits is online on the SSA’s website. If you’d prefer to apply in person, you can do so at your closest Social Security office. You can make an appointment by calling the SSA toll-free at 1-800-772-1213.

Regardless of how you apply, be sure to fill out your paperwork as carefully as possible. If the SSA cannot retrieve your biopsy reports or other medical records, your claim will be denied. Most applicants with cancer will be approved within five months, but some with advanced stages of cancer (Stage IV or small cell cancer) will be approved in as little as 10 days.


This article was provided by Disability Benefits Help. If you have any questions or need assistance with your claim, feel free to reach out to our team at [email protected].

Disability Benefits Help is an independent resource dedicated to helping people of all ages receive the disability benefits they need. DBH has thousands of pages on how to qualify for disability benefits with hundreds of conditions, what to do if your claim is denied, and how to keep your benefits after approval. If you have a question on how to apply or medically qualifying with cancer, feel free to ask our staff for assistance on our forum.