Disability Benefits Based on Stomach Cancer

You can qualify for expedited disability benefits if your stomach cancer is inoperable, recurrent, or unresectable, or has metastasized to your lymph nodes.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Stomach cancer (gastric cancer) is fairly rare in the United States, accounting for less than 2% of all new cancers diagnosed each year. But it can be severe, and, unfortunately, it's often life-threatening.

Stomach cancer symptoms and the treatments for it can make it impossible to work enough to support yourself. If you have stomach cancer, you might qualify for disability benefits through the Social Security Administration (SSA). And if your cancer has advanced, you'll likely qualify for expedited processing of your claim.

What Is Stomach Cancer?

Cancers that begin in the stomach are called gastric cancers or stomach cancers, and they're classified into the following three primary types.

  • Adenocarcinomas, the most common type, start in the cells of the stomach lining and fall into two groups:
    • gastric cardia cancer (begins in the top inch of the stomach, and is also called gastroesophageal junction cancer), and
    • non-cardia gastric cancer (begins below the top inch of the stomach).
  • Gastric lymphomas, a type of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, develop from blood cells that are part of the immune system (called lymphocytes).
  • Gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GIST) are soft tissue sarcomas that begin in nerve cells lining the wall of the stomach and other parts of the digestive system. 

Some rare types of cancer can also begin in the stomach, like:

  • carcinoid tumors
  • small cell (oat cell) carcinoma, and
  • squamous cell carcinoma.

Other cancers, like metastatic breast cancer or melanoma, can spread to the stomach.

What Causes Stomach Cancer?

Doctors aren't sure what causes stomach cancer, but certain conditions make it more likely to develop, including:

Some other factors that might play a role in developing gastric cancer are things you can control, like smoking, poor diet, and frequent alcohol consumption. But there are other possible factors that you can't control, like your family history and blood type. (Learn more about the risk factors for stomach cancer.)

The Stages of Stomach Cancer

There are five stages of stomach cancer, based on how far the cancer has penetrated your stomach lining.

  • Stage 0: Abnormal cells that could become cancerous are found in the mucosa, the inside lining of your stomach.
  • Stage 1: There's a tumor in the mucosa that might have spread to the submucosa, nearby lymph nodes, or the muscle layer.
  • Stage 2: Cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes and into deeper layers of your stomach lining (the subserosa and possibly the serosa).
  • Stage 3: Cancer has penetrated all the layers of your stomach and has spread to nearby organs like your spleen, kidneys, or colon, or it's gone deep into your lymph nodes.
  • Stage 4: Cancer has spread to distant organs, like your lungs, liver, or brain (called metastatic stomach cancer).

Symptoms and Treatment for Stomach Cancer

Stomach cancer symptoms can start off relatively mild, like indigestion or feeling bloated after eating. These symptoms are often mistaken for other, less serious conditions. Later, you might develop more severe symptoms such as:

  • vomiting blood
  • unintentional weight loss
  • painful abdominal bloating
  • dark stools
  • fatigue, and
  • loss of appetite.

Treatment generally includes surgical removal of the cancerous tissues, but many times, stomach cancer isn't detected early enough to remove the entire cancer. Chemotherapy and chemoradiation are also commonly used to treat stomach cancer.

Qualifying for Disability for Stomach Cancer

Many patients with stomach cancer qualify for disability benefits through the Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs.

Does Your Stomach Cancer Qualify for Automatic Disability?

To automatically qualify for SSDI or SSI disability benefits with stomach cancer, you need to meet the requirements of Social Security's impairment listing for stomach cancer, listing 13.16. This listing requires that you have a diagnosis of stomach cancer and that your cancer:

  • can't be operated on or fully removed by surgery
  • returned after treatment, or
  • has grown into surrounding areas or spread to nearby lymph nodes or elsewhere in the body (metastasized).

Under this listing, if you have stage III or stage IV cancer, you'll automatically qualify for disability benefits. Whether stage I or II stomach cancers qualify for disability benefits under this listing will usually depend on whether the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes.

Medical Evidence Needed to Meet the Listing for Stomach Cancer

You'll need solid medical evidence to prove that you meet the listing for stomach cancer. Social Security will expect to see all of your medical tests and treatment records, including the following:

  • copies of your biopsies
  • blood test results
  • MRI and other diagnostic imaging reports
  • your doctor's notes about your condition
  • treatment records, and
  • any reports created by your oncologist.

Learn more about the type of medical evidence required by Social Security.

Qualifying for Disability When You Don't Meet the Listing for Stomach Cancer

If your stomach cancer doesn't meet the requirements of the listing, your symptoms and limitations might still prevent you from working. For example, surgeries to remove stomach cancer often result in significant weight loss and nutritional deficiencies that cause severe fatigue. (So, you might meet the listing for extreme weight loss, listing 5.08.)

Even if you don't meet the requirements of a listing, if your fatigue prevents you from working full-time, you might qualify for disability benefits through a "medical-vocational allowance." Social Security will next determine if you can do your past work or if there are any jobs you can be expected to do, given your limitations.

The SSA will assess your physical (and mental) limitations and assign you a residual functional capacity (RFC) for the kind of work you can still do using the following scale:

  • sedentary work (like office work)
  • light work (requires frequent walking or standing and the ability to lift 10-20 pounds), or
  • medium work (can lift up to 50 pounds).

For instance, if you can't stand for long periods because of weakness or pain caused by stomach cancer, your RFC might be for sedentary work. But if you need to take rest breaks so frequently that it disrupts your ability to be productive in even the easiest job, your RFC would likely be for "less than sedentary work."

If you can't do even sedentary work, Social Security will find there are no jobs you can still do, and you'll qualify for disability benefits under a medical-vocational allowance. Learn more about getting disability benefits through a medical-vocational allowance.

How to Apply for Disability for Stomach Cancer

You can apply for SSDI benefits in one of three ways:

If you don't meet the SSDI work history requirements, you can apply for SSI disability benefits. Learn more about SSI disability, including the non-medical requirements.

Updated November 15, 2023

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