Are Disability Benefits Available When You Have Uterine, Ovarian, or Endometrial Cancer?

Long-term side effects from cancer treatment or the advanced cancer stages of uterine, ovarian, or endometrial cancer can qualify you for SSDI or SSI.

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

Ovarian cancer, fallopian tube cancer, and uterine cancer—of which the most common type is endometrial cancer—are three types of cancer that affect the female reproductive system. Treatment of these cancers usually involves a combination of surgery and chemotherapy, which can make it difficult for patients to complete activities of daily living or hold down a job.

Fortunately, treatment is usually very effective, and many people who have uterine, ovarian, or tubal cancers are in remission after several years. But because chemotherapy can take a significant toll—physically and mentally—on cancer patients, Social Security disability benefits (SSDI or SSI) are available for people who aren't able to work full-time for at least one year.

Overview of Female Reproductive System Cancers

Uterine cancer occurs in the uterus (or "womb"), the organ in which a fetus develops during pregnancy. When cancer starts in the endometrium—the medical term for the lining of the uterus—it's called endometrial cancer, which is the most common type of uterine cancer. Uterine cancer is highly curable, especially if the cancer is detected early.

Ovarian cancer occurs in the ovaries, the reproductive system organs that produce eggs. Ovarian cancer isn't typically diagnosed early, because the symptoms are often thought to be caused by another disorder, which can decrease the overall survival rate.

Fallopian tube ("tubal") cancer affects the tubes that connect the ovaries to the uterus. While tubal cancer only makes up about 1% of reproductive system cancers, when caught early, it responds very well to treatment, with 95% of patients in the clear five years after diagnosis.

Qualifying for Social Security Disability Benefits

In order to qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, you must show that you either meet the requirements of a listing in the Social Security "Blue Book"—a list of medical conditions that can automatically qualify you for disability if you have specific medical records—or prove that you're unable to do any job because of your functional limitations.

Getting Disability by the Listing for Cancers of the Female Genital Tract

The Social Security Administration (SSA) evaluates disability claims for uterine, ovarian, endometrial, or tubal cancer under listing 13.23. Each specific type of cancer has its own requirements (noted below), but the general requirement to qualify for automatic benefits is that the cancer must have spread or returned after treatment.

Specifically, to qualify automatically for disability due to uterine or endometrial cancer, your medical records must show evidence that the cancer has:

  • spread to other organs
  • spread to, or beyond, the regional lymph nodes, or
  • failed to go into remission, or returned after the initial round of treatments.

To qualify automatically for disability due to fallopian tube cancer, your medical records need to document that the cancer has:

  • extended to the serosa (the outermost layer of the fallopian tube) or beyond, or
  • failed to go into remission, or returned after the initial round of treatments.

Eligibility for automatic disability due to ovarian cancer depends on the kind of tumor. To meet the listing, you'll need documentation of one of the following:

  • germ cell tumors that are getting worse or have returned after the initial round of treatments, or
  • any other type of tumor that has either extended beyond the pelvis into the surrounding tissue, spread to or beyond the regional lymph nodes, or returned after the initial round of treatments.

What Medical Evidence Does Social Security Consider When Using the Listing?

When determining whether you meet this listing, Social Security will consider what organ the cancer originated in, to what extent the cancer has spread throughout the body, what treatments your doctor has used, the body's response to those treatments, and any long-term effects you've had from the treatments. Make sure the following medical information is in your medical records:

  • progress notes from your gynecologist (a doctor who specializes in the female reproductive system) and oncologist (a cancer specialist)
  • operative notes and pathology reports from biopsies
  • lab work, such as blood tests
  • objective medical evidence, such as X-rays or MRIs, that show the location of the cancer
  • medications, surgeries, and chemotherapy treatments you've undergone, and
  • your doctors' observations about how your body responds to cancer treatments.

If you believe your condition qualifies as a compassionate allowance (such as ovarian cancer), Social Security recommends that you submit your doctor's opinion with your application. The opinion should explain why your doctor doesn't believe the ovarian cancer can be removed, and provide a pathology report showing that the cancer is still present after the surgery.

How Long Will It Take to Get a Disability Decision and Benefits?

Depending on the type of cancer you were diagnosed with and how early you are in your treatment, you might get a disability decision in a few weeks or several months. Social Security strives to approve compassionate allowances quickly, so if the agency agrees that you qualify under that program, you might receive a determination in as little as 10 days—although it will still take some time before you receive your first benefit check.

On the other hand, if you've recently completed your first round of cancer treatments, Social Security may wait several months to make a decision on your case to see if the treatment works. You may not get a decision on your initial application for six to eight months. But once you're approved for benefits under listing 13.23, the agency will pay you disability benefits for at least three years after your cancer is in remission. (After three years, Social Security will start to schedule continuing disability reviews.)

Qualifying for Disability Based on Limited Residual Functional Capacity

Even if you don't meet the requirements of listing 13.23, you can still qualify for disability benefits by showing that your symptoms and limitations affect your abilities so much that you can't work. To determine whether you can work, Social Security will consider how your medical treatments, and their side effects, limit what types of tasks you can do, in what the agency calls a residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment.

The Limiting Symptoms of Reproductive Organ Cancers in Your RFC

Social Security will consider any symptoms that are recorded in your medical records. Here are some common symptoms of reproductive organ cancers:

  • Uterine and endometrial cancers tend to cause abnormal vaginal discharge and pain in the pelvic area during sex or when urinating.
  • Ovarian cancers have a wide constellation of symptoms. Examples include bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, abnormal menstruation, digestive issues, lower back pain, weight fluctuations, excessive urination, vaginal bleeding, and excessive hair growth.
  • Fallopian tube cancer. Tubal cancer symptoms include vaginal bleeding or discharge and pelvic pain.

The Side Effects of Reproductive Cancer Treatments In Your RFC

Treatment for cancers can be especially draining. Social Security acknowledges that side effects of cancer therapies can have an impact on your ability to work, and as such must be included in your RFC.

  • Surgery. Removal of the uterus (hysterectomy), ovaries, or fallopian tubes may be recommended to treat reproductive cancers. Long-term effects of these surgeries can include early menopause and urinary incontinence.
  • Chemotherapy is commonly used to treat cancer. Long-term effects can include increased risk of heart failure, liver or kidney damage, decreased cognitive function (such as poor memory or trouble concentrating), and reduced motor function.
  • Radiation therapy. Side effects of radiation therapy for reproductive cancers include bladder and bowel problems.
  • Hormone therapy can weaken bones and cause decreased adrenal gland function, affecting how your body regulates your metabolism, immune system, blood pressure, and response to stress. Estrogen replacement may increase the risk of cardiovascular issues and osteoporosis.

Many people who have a cancer diagnosis receive treatment for depression and anxiety as well. Social Security is required to consider how multiple impairments combined affect your ability to work, so if you're receiving medication or attending counseling for your mental health, let the agency know.

How Social Security Develops Your RFC

Social Security will include physical and mental restrictions in your RFC. Physical limitations focus on problems lifting, moving, walking, standing, and even sitting. For example, back and pelvic pain caused by cancer may make lifting even 10 pounds or sitting for even half an hour difficult. Fatigue from chemotherapy, lack of appetite, or difficulty eating can make it hard to get through a workday without taking a nap or lying down.

When it comes to mental limitations, side effects from treatment can cause mental fogginess and forgetfulness that can limit your ability to complete even simple tasks. Depression and anxiety can cause you to snap at co-workers or deal with constructive criticism from your supervisor, which can limit your ability to work with the public. The more severe your symptoms are, the more restrictions you'll have in your RFC.

How Social Security Uses Your RFC

The SSA will look at all the limitations in your current RFC and compare them with the job duties of your past relevant work. If you can't return to your past work, then Social Security will need to determine whether any other jobs exist that you can do despite the restrictions in your RFC.

For disability applicants over the age of 50, Social Security will use the medical-vocational grid rules to decide whether you can learn to do less demanding types of work. For applicants younger than 50, the agency will generally need to see that you can't do even the simplest sit-down jobs.

Getting Legal Help for a Claim Based on Cancers of the Reproductive System

Filing for disability benefits when you're also undergoing medical treatment for cancer (or struggling with long-term side effects) can be stressful. Consider getting help from an experienced disability attorney. Your lawyer can collect and submit all your relevant medical evidence, handle all communications with Social Security, and represent you at a disability hearing in front of an administrative law judge—where you'll have the best chances of getting approved for benefits.

Updated September 25, 2023

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