Getting Disability Benefits for Thyroid Cancer

People with advanced thyroid cancer can qualify for benefits if they have specific medical evidence.

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

Thyroid cancer starts in the thyroid, an important gland located in your lower neck that produces hormones which regulate your body's metabolism. Thyroid cancer is relatively rare, representing 2.2% of all new cancer cases in the U.S. (as of 2023).

Some types of thyroid cancer are easily treatable, with high survival rates. Other types are more aggressive, with symptoms that can interfere significantly with daily life, including your ability to work.

Is Thyroid Cancer a Disability?

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits are available for people whose treatment and symptoms of thyroid cancer keep them from working full-time for at least one year. Before Social Security can award you disability, you'll need to show that you meet the non-financial eligibility requirements for the type of benefit you're applying for. For SSDI, this means having enough work credits to be insured under the program, while SSI is available only to applicants who have income and assets below a low threshold.

Types of Thyroid Cancer

According to recent statistics from the National Cancer Institute, the combined 5-year survival rate for all thyroid cancers is 98.5%. Survival rates vary according to how far the cancer has metastasized (spread to the rest of the body) and by type. The National Cancer Institute identifies four main types of thyroid cancer:

  • Papillary carcinoma is the most common type and makes up 80% of all cases of thyroid cancer. Papillary carcinoma spreads slowly and has the highest survival rate of the types of thyroid cancers.
  • Follicular carcinoma makes up 15% of all cases. The survival rate is good for follicular carcinoma cancer, with 91% of individuals on average surviving five years and 85% surviving at least ten years. The exact survival rate depends on how far the cancer has progressed when diagnosed.
  • Medullary carcinoma can be hereditary, as genetics are one of the main causes of this thyroid cancer. Medullary carcinoma has a survival rate of 80% at five years and 75% at ten years.
  • Anaplastic carcinoma is the rarest type of thyroid cancer, occuring in only 1% of all cases. Anaplastic carcinoma is aggressive, with a high mortality rate.

Symptoms and Treatment of Thyroid Cancer

Thyroid cancer might not cause any symptoms in its earlier stages. As the cancer progresses, however, the following symptoms can develop:

  • swelling or a lump on your neck, sometimes growing quickly
  • neck pain
  • hoarseness or voice changes
  • shortness of breath
  • trouble swallowing, and
  • recurring coughs.

Treatments for thyroid cancer usually involve surgical removal of the gland and radiation or chemotherapy to make sure that the cancerous tissue is gone. Even after successful treatment, people who've had thyroid cancer have to take hormone pills for the rest of their lives, in order to make up for the lack of thyroid-produced hormones.

How to Qualify for Disability Benefits for Thyroid Cancer

Social Security has two ways applicants can qualify for disability—meet (or equal) a medical listing or show that they're unable to work.

Getting Disability by Meeting or Equaling Listing 13.09 for Thyroid Cancer

Thyroid cancer has a specific listing (13.09) in Social Security's "Blue Book" of medical conditions. The agency will award you disability benefits if your application contains evidence of one of the following:

  • Anaplastic carcinoma
  • Carcinoma that is spreading beyond the lymph nodes near the thyroid gland despite radioactive iodine therapy, or
  • Medullary carcinoma that has spread beyond the lymph nodes.

Social Security looks at medical records that show what type of thyroid cancer you have, where it started, how large it is, and whether the cancer has spread. Specific documentation the agency will look for include pathology reports (biopsies), surgical notes, and medical imaging (such as X-rays or MRIs). If radioactive iodine therapy is part of your treatment, Social Security will want to see the types, dosages, and frequencies of the drugs being administered.

You may be able to "equal" listing 13.09 even if you don't satisfy the above criteria exactly if you can show that your health conditions are equally as severe as the listing. For example, if you had surgery to remove a papillary carcinoma, but the cancer continued to spread to other areas of the body, you may be able to equal the listing for thyroid cancer.

Getting Disability by Showing You Can't Work

If you don't meet or equal listing 13.09, you may still qualify for disability benefits if symptoms from thyroid cancer prevent you from working. Social Security decides whether you're able to work by reviewing your medical records, activities of daily living, and doctor's opinions to assess your residual functional capacity (RFC).

Your RFC is a set of restrictions, physical and mental, that show what you are and aren't capable of doing in a work setting. For example, radiation and chemotherapy treatment can weaken the immune system, causing an increase in infections that contribute to excessive absences. Shortness of breath and fatigue can limit how much weight you can lift and how long you can stand or walk.

Social Security compares the demands of your past work with the limitations in your current RFC to see whether you could do those jobs now. If you can't, the agency will determine whether there are any other jobs you can do despite the restrictions in your RFC. If Social Security finds that you can't do other work given your RFC (and other factors such as age and education), you'll qualify for benefits in what's called a medical-vocational allowance.

Applying for Disability for Thyroid Cancer

You can start your application for disability in several ways.

  • File online at Social Security's website. If you're applying for SSDI benefits, you can complete the entire application online. If you're applying for SSI, you can begin the forms online, but a Social Security representative will contact you for additional information before submitting your file.
  • Call 888-772-1213 between the hours of 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, to speak with a representative who can help you fill out the forms. (People who are deaf or hard of hearing can call the TTY number at 800-325-0778.)
  • Apply in person at your local Social Security field office.

You can also ask an experienced disability attorney to help you with your application. Your lawyer can make sure that you don't miss any important deadlines, handle all communication with Social Security, and represent you (if necessary) at a disability hearing.

Updated December 21, 2023

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