Qualifying for Social Security Disability Benefits With Cancer

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Denise Brock, Operations Director

This article was provided by Disability Benefits Help, an independent organization dedicated to helping people of all ages get Social Security disability benefits. If you have any questions on how to qualify for disability benefits, you can reach out to their team at help@ssd-help.org or you can learn more on their website: https://www.disability-benefits-help.org/blog.  You can also get information from the Social Security Administration (SSA) at https://www.ssa.gov/, and specific information on cancers at https://www.ssa.gov/disability/professionals/bluebook/13.00-NeoplasticDiseases-Malignant-Adult.htm.


Qualifying for Social Security Disability Benefits With Cancer

If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with cancer, there may be financial resources available for your family. The Social Security Administration (SSA) offers monthly benefits for people who have been diagnosed with an illness that will keep them from earning income for at least 12 months. If you are unable to work due to your cancer’s complications or treatments for a year or more, you may be eligible for resources that can be used to pay for your medical treatments, rent or mortgage, childcare, or any other daily needs.


Medical Qualifications for Cancer

The SSA uses its own medical resource, known as the Blue Book, to evaluate all disability claimants and award benefits accordingly. Section 13.00 is dedicated to qualifying with cancer. Medical eligibility will vary wildly depending on what type of cancer you’ve been diagnosed with. 

For example, someone diagnosed with esophageal cancer will automatically medically qualify for benefits. A woman diagnosed with breast cancer, on the other hand, will have a much harder time applying for Social Security. You will need to have medical evidence showing your breast cancer has:

•    Spread to 10 or more auxiliary nodes, or
•    Moved beyond the collar bone, or
•    Is inoperable or untreatable, or
•    Spread to other organs, or
•    Returned despite at least 3 months’ treatment

Because the entire Blue Book is available online, you can review the resource with your oncologist to determine whether or not your cancer will qualify. 

Qualifying Without the Blue Book

While a handful of cancers will need only a diagnosis for approval, most forms of cancer need to be advanced (Stage III or beyond) to qualify via the Blue Book. Fortunately, there is another way to qualify. You can apply for a Medical Vocational Allowance, which is a unique form of approval for people who will be unable to work for at least a year at any job at which they’re qualified for. 

If your chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, or other cancer treatments will prevent you from working at all for 12 months, you may be able to meet a Medical Vocational Allowance. These approvals vary wildly depending on your work history. People who’ve only worked labor-intensive jobs will have much better chances of qualifying. Additionally, people aged 50+ will have better odds of qualifying, as the SSA thinks older adults will have a tougher time getting retrained for an easier or sedentary job. Here’s a hypothetical example:

Jim and Tom are both construction workers who have been diagnosed with Stage III prostate cancer. Jim is 55 years old and has worked in construction since high school, while Tom is 25 and working part-time while receiving his Master’s degree. Both need a year’s worth of treatment and are unable to keep their jobs at the construction site. Neither will meet the Blue Book listing for prostate cancer, as the SSA requires a prostate cancer diagnosis of Stage IV to qualify. Jim is older and has no other work experience, so he has a good chance of qualifying because he’s unable to take another job that could earn a living wage. With his young age and college degree, it’s likely the SSA will argue that Tom could take a desk job and earn gainful income ($1,180 per month in 2018). If so, Tom’s claim would be denied and Jim’s approved, even though the two have the same cancer diagnosis. 


Starting Your Application

Most people will be able to apply for disability benefits online on the SSA’s website. This is the easiest way to apply, as you’ll be able to save your progress to be completed at a later date. If you’d prefer, you can apply at your closest SSA office with a representative in person. You can do so by calling the SSA toll-free at 1-800-772-1213. 

The majority (nearly 70%) of disability applicants are denied, but keep in mind that this figure includes applicants with disabilities that are more challenging to have approved, such as mood disorders. People with cancer, particularly advanced cancer, have approval rates that are significantly higher. Just be sure to fill out your application carefully so the SSA can gather all necessary medical evidence on your behalf. Most applicants are approved within five months, but people with cancer that has returned after treatment or spread to another organ could be approved in as little as 10 days.


Helpful Links: 

Blue Book Listing 13.00: https://www.ssa.gov/disability/professionals/bluebook/13.00-NeoplasticDiseases-Malignant-Adult.htm 
Applying for disability benefits with Breast Cancer: http://www.disability-benefits-help.org/disabling-conditions/breast-cancer
SSA Blue Book: https://www.ssa.gov/disability/professionals/bluebook/AdultListings.htm
Medical Vocational Allowance information: https://secure.ssa.gov/poms.nsf/lnx/0425025005
SSA Online Application: https://secure.ssa.gov/iClaim/dib
SSA Office Locations: http://www.disability-benefits-help.org/social-security-disability-locations


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