Does Colon Cancer Qualify for Social Security Disability?

If your colon cancer is considered metastatic, recurrent, inoperable, or unresectable, you’re guaranteed automatic disability benefits.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Colon cancer, along with rectal cancer, is the third most diagnosed form of cancer today. Together, these types of cancers are called "colorectal cancer," but Social Security classifies them as "cancer of the large intestine."

Under certain circumstances, you can qualify for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) because of your colorectal cancer. This article will cover the Social Security Administration's (SSA's) basic requirements for disability, including when colorectal cancer will automatically qualify you for benefits and other ways you might be eligible.

What Is Colorectal Cancer, and How's It Treated?

Colorectal cancer is a digestive tract cancer that affects the large intestine, rectum, and anus. Both men and women are diagnosed with it, though men have a somewhat higher risk. Colorectal tumors generally fall into one of the following categories:

Unfortunately, colorectal cancers often don't cause symptoms until they've spread. Screenings like stool tests, colonoscopies, and other diagnostic procedures are usually the only way to detect this cancer early.

Colorectal cancer is most often treated with surgery, sometimes in combination with chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. Treatment can cause unpleasant side effects, some of which can linger long after your cancer is gone. And sometimes, a colorectal tumor is inoperable (meaning surgery won't help or could make things worse).

Can I Get Social Security Disability for Colon Cancer?

Social Security has included colorectal cancer (cancer of the large intestine) in the agency's listing of impairments, called the Blue Book. If your cancer meets the requirements of the listing, you'll automatically qualify for disability benefits.

If you have colorectal cancer, you'll generally only meet the listing if your colon or rectal cancer is inoperable or has advanced beyond a simple tumor that could be removed by surgery. Specifically, you'll automatically be approved for benefits if one of the following criteria from Social Security's listing for intestinal cancer (13.18) is true.

  • Your colorectal tumor is an adenocarcinoma that's:
    • recurrent (came back after a remission)
    • inoperable (can't be treated by surgery), or
    • unresectable (couldn't be entirely removed by surgery).
  • Your tumor is a squamous cell carcinoma of the anus that returned despite surgery.
  • Your colorectal cancer has metastasized (spread) beyond the lymph nodes closest to the original tumor.
  • Your colorectal cancer is small-cell (oat cell) carcinoma (which is rare).

What if My Colon or Rectal Cancer Doesn't Meet the Disability Listing?

If your cancer doesn't meet one of the requirements above (for instance, your tumor was successfully removed before it spread), but you're unable to work, there's another way to qualify for disability benefits.

Social Security will look at your capacity to work with the limitations caused by your colorectal cancer or its treatment. For example, you may feel you're unable to work because you have extreme fatigue and you've lost muscle strength due to unintentional weight loss. Or maybe you have numbness in your fingers after chemotherapy (peripheral neuropathy). Be sure your doctor is aware of your lingering issues so they can be documented in your medical records.

Do Your Limitations Prevent You From Returning to Previous Work?

Social Security will use any limitations or restrictions documented in your medical records to create a "residual functional capacity" (RFC) assessment for you. For instance, if your doctor restricted you from standing or walking more than six hours per day and from lifting more than 50 pounds, your RFC would be for medium work. Your doctor may have also mentioned that you need frequent restroom breaks and to be near a bathroom. The SSA should include those limitations in your RFC. The Social Security claims examiner will then compare your RFC against the requirements of your prior job to see if you can return to it with your new limitations.

Social Security will also consider any long-term side effects from chemotherapy or radiation, such as cognitive issues or memory problems—if these limitations appear in your medical records.

Do Your Age and Job Skills Allow You to Do Other Work?

If the claims examiner agrees you can't return to your prior job, the claims examiner will then look to see if your RFC prevents you from working any other job. If you're over 50, when determining if you could learn to do other work, the Social Security claims examiner will look at your:

  • work history and prior job skills
  • education level, and
  • age.

Your age and prior job skills are especially important in determining whether there are any other jobs you could be trained to do within your restrictions.

If the claims examiner determines that there aren't any other jobs you could be expected to do, you'll qualify for disability benefits. For more information, see our article on getting disability through an RFC.

Can I Get Disability Because of My Colostomy Bag?

It's not uncommon for people who've had surgery for colorectal cancer to have a colostomy bag to collect solid waste through a surgical opening (stoma) in the abdomen (belly). You might need a temporary colostomy bag while you heal, but you could have one long term or even permanently, which might affect your ability to work.

For example, if you have a colostomy bag, your doctor might have limited you to lifting and pushing or pulling only 5-15 pounds. In that case, you should have an RFC for light work. You can no longer do medium work, such as janitor or doorman, or heavy work, such as mover or construction laborer. If your last job required heavy lifting or a lot of standing, Social Security should agree that you can't return to that job. But the claims examiner will still consider whether there are any other jobs you could do given your limitations, age, and skills.

Social Security generally won't consider just having a colostomy bag a disability because it usually won't stop you from working (except in jobs that require lifting or pushing and pulling heavy weights). But having a colostomy bag could contribute to your overall inability to work, especially if you have complications like needing to change it frequently or an allergy to the adhesive tape used to hold it in place.

Suppose you have multiple issues, like a colostomy bag with complications, fatigue, and lingering abdominal pain after radiation therapy. Even if none of your issues on their own are enough to keep you from working, the combined effect could be enough for Social Security to decide that you're disabled.

Standard Requirements for Social Security Disability

Even if you meet all of the medical requirements for Social Security disability benefits, you'll also need to meet the SSA's non-medical requirements. Social Security will review your file to see if you also meet the following qualifications:

  • Your inability to work due to colon or rectal cancer is expected to last at least a year.
  • You aren't engaged in "substantial gainful activity" (SGA)—meaning earning more than $1,550 per month.
  • You must qualify for a specific disability program by:
    • having worked enough years to be eligible for SSDI, or
    • having income and assets below the limits for SSI.

Disability and Cancer of the Small Intestine

While the SSA has a separate listing for cancer of the small intestine (13.17), the requirements for automatic approval for disability are nearly the same as for the large intestine. To qualify for benefits, cancer of the small intestine must be a carcinoma, sarcoma, or carcinoid that's either:

  • inoperable, unresectable, recurrent, or
  • metastasized (spread) beyond the regional lymph nodes.

In addition, small-cell carcinoma qualifies under the listing regardless of whether it's operable, recurrent, or metastatic.

If you don't meet the listing for cancer of the small intestine, Social Security could evaluate your RFC similarly to someone with cancer of the large intestine, and if you have an ileostomy bag, you could have a similar no-heavy-lifting restriction as someone with a colostomy bag.

Learn more about the standard requirements for qualifying for disability benefits due to cancer.

Updated December 12, 2023

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