Can I Get Disability Benefits for Skin Cancer?

Skin cancer or melanoma that has spread may qualify you for Social Security disability benefits.

If your skin cancer or melanoma has left you unable to work, you may qualify for disability benefits by applying to Social Security. While most skin cancers are not disabling, the more severe types of skin cancer can be.

What are the types of skin cancer and their severity?

There are three main types of skin cancer. Below they are listed according to their severity, going from the least severe to the most severe.

Basal Cell Carcinoma. This type of cancer makes up 90% of all skin cancer in the United States. This cancer is almost always contained to the area in which appears and does not spread to other parts of the body. Treatments for this type of cancer generally include removal of the cancer by surgery, freezing, or use of creams. If the cancer is in a position that is difficult to treat, radiation therapy may be used instead.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma. This type of cancer is the second most common. The difference with squamous cell carcinoma is that is can spread to other parts of the body; this type of cancer on the lower lip is more prone to spreading. This cancer is treated in the same way as basal cell carcinoma.

Melanoma. This cancer is the least common of the types of skin cancer, but it can spread quickly. Melanoma is caused by a change in the cells that produce the skin pigmentation (called melanin). To treat this type of cancer, surgery is required; if the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes, they too must be removed. If the cancer has spread beyond the lymph nodes, it is difficult to cure. Treatments involve chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery.

Another type of skin cancer that generally affects those with suppressed immune systems (including those who have had organ transplants) or from specific ethnic backgrounds is Kaposi’s sarcoma. This cancer appears as lesions on the skin. It cannot be cured and is generally treated by removal of the cancer and treatment of the immunodeficiency.

While most skin cancer is curable if diagnosed early enough, melanoma that has spread can be very difficult to cure and can return years later. Side effects of treatment can include pain, nausea, and fatigue.

Can I qualify for disability benefits if I am unable to work?

If your skin cancer has left you disabled and unable to work, you may qualify for disability benefits, including Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and/or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). To qualify for disability benefits, you must prove one of the following things.

You meet a disability listing. Social Security provides listings in their “blue book,” which describes types of impairments that, if met, would qualify you for disability benefits. To meet a listing, you must show that you have all of the requirements of a given listing.

You equal a disability listing. If you are not able to meet a listing but have impairments that are similar to a listing, you may be able to "equal" a listing. To equal the listing, you must show that your impairment is similar to another listing and equals that listing in severity and length.

You are unable to work any job. The ability to work includes working any job that falls within your abilities based on an assessment used by Social Security that considers age, education level, and work experience, in addition to your impairments (which are assessed using a Residual Functional Capacity form).

How can I meet the listing for skin cancer?

There is a specific listing for skin cancer under Listing 13.03. To meet this listing, you must prove you have one of the following:

  • Skin cancer (either sarcoma or carcinoma) that has spread beyond the local lymph nodes.
  • Melanoma that comes back even after the cancer and skin around the cancer was removed.
  • Melanoma that has spread to a lymph node that is clinically apparent or to four or more lymph nodes.
  • Melanoma that has spread to nearby skin or to distant sites.

In order to show that you meet this listing, your medical records must contain the proper medical evidence. You records should state the type of cancer you have, where the cancer started, and where it has spread to (if it has spread). If you had a biopsy done to diagnose the cancer, you should provide the operative and pathology notes from the procedure. It is also important to include all treatments received, including the type of treatment, length of treatment, and effects of treatment.

How can I equal the skin cancer listing?

If you do not meet the requirements exactly of the above listing, Social Security may find that your condition is equal in severity to the listing. For example, an individual who has a non-melanoma type of cancer that is resistant to treatment might be able to equal this listing if the cancer spreads and requires more progressive treatments.

How can I prove that I am unable to work?

If you don't meet or equal the skin cancer listing, Social Security will assess how your illness affects your ability to work. For those with less advanced skin cancer, there are often minimal side effects of the cancer itself, and the treatment often causes minimal effect on the individual’s functional abilities. There may be a short recovery time after treatment, but not one long enough to be considered disabled (which is 12 months).

However, if the side effects of radiation therapy or chemotherapy last more than a year, they may have an effect on your ability to work. Fatigue is often the biggest factor that can affect ability to perform work duties. Additional side effects that can disrupt your ability to work include pain, nausea, effects on memory, and decreased feelings in the fingers and toes.

After a person has had skin cancer, they are at an increased risk for reoccurrence of the skin cancer. Because of this factor, individuals who have had skin cancer must limit their time in the sun and protect their skin whenever they need to be in the sun. Therefore, working outside may not be an option for those who have had skin cancer. If your past jobs all involved working outdoors, Social Security should find that you can't do your past work, and if you are of a certain age, you won't be expected to adjust to other types of work.

Unless you meet the skin cancer listing, it's a difficult to get disability for skin cancer alone. However, it's not impossible. For more information, see our section on how Social Security decides if you can work.

If I am determined to be disabled by skin cancer, how long will I receive benefits?

Those who are determined to be disabled based on their skin cancer will be considered to be disabled by that impairment for at least three years after their skin cancer goes into remission. If the cancer comes back, the three-year time period will begin again when the cancer goes back into remission. Once the three-year period ends, if you are still disabled you'll need to show Social Security that you are disabled based on another listing or impairment.

Disability Eligibility Quiz Take our disability quiz to help you determine whether you qualify for benefits.

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