Getting Social Security Disability for Liver Cancer

If you've been diagnosed with liver cancer, you may qualify for expedited disability benefits.

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

Liver cancer—also called hepatic cancer—is a relatively rare kind of cancer in the United States, but is unfortunately associated with a high rate of mortality. According to the National Cancer Institute, liver cancer made up an estimated 2.1% of new cancer cases in 2023, with a five-year survival rate of 21.6% (according to data from 2013-2019).

The most common type of liver cancer is called hepatocellular carcinoma. The risk of getting hepatocellular carcinoma increases with age, and the disorder is more likely to develop in men than in women. Because of the poor prognosis (medical outlook) for people with liver cancer, Social Security has placed hepatocellular carcinoma on its Compassionate Allowances list.

How Can I Get Disability Benefits for Liver Cancer?

The Compassionate Allowances program allows people who have been diagnosed with liver cancer to get disability benefits faster. Instead of waiting the typical year (or more) to qualify for benefits, applicants with liver cancer may be approved in as little as two to three weeks. Additionally, Social Security often reviews applications based on liver cancer as TERI (Terminal Illness) cases, which can also speed up the payment process.

You don't need to do anything special to have your application processed as a Compassionate Allowance or TERI claim. Examiners at your local Disability Determination Services (DDS) will flag your application for expedited processing once they see that you've been diagnosed with liver cancer. You'll still need to provide medical evidence of your diagnosis, however.

What Evidence Do I Need to Get Disability for Liver Cancer?

Social Security isn't allowed to approve disability claims without medical evidence documenting your disorder.

Because liver cancer is rarely discovered early and doesn't typically respond to current treatments, the agency can award you benefits as long as you have evidence that supports a diagnosis of liver cancer. (This is different from most disability evaluations, which require that you also have evidence of functional limitations that keep you from working.)

According to the Compassionate Allowances section on liver cancer, Social Security will likely find that you're disabled under listing 13.19 if your medical records contain certain diagnostic tests and physical results, discussed in detail below.

Diagnostic Testing

You should provide Social Security with notes from your oncologist (cancer doctor) showing what tests they used to arrive at their diagnosis of liver cancer. Examples of acceptable tests include:

  • blood tests used to check for liver abnormalities, such as elevated levels of a molecule called alpha-fetoprotein (AFP)
  • imaging such as CT scans, MRIs, ultrasounds, or angiograms, and
  • a pathology (tissue health) report following a liver biopsy (tissue sample) that indicates the presence of cancer.

Clinical notes from your primary care physician, oncologist, and hepatologist (liver doctor) should also be submitted with the above records. Your doctors' notes can provide valuable insights into factors such as the date you became disabled—which can have an impact on your amount of back due benefits.

Physical Findings

Liver cancer doesn't always cause symptoms in its early stages, but as the disease progresses, you might experience the following:

  • pain in the right side of the upper abdomen, which may extend to the back and shoulder
  • swelling or bloating in the abdomen
  • weight loss or reduced appetite
  • weakness or fatigue
  • nausea or vomiting
  • jaundice (a yellow tinge to the eyes and skin)
  • dark urine, and
  • fever.

Depending on how advanced your liver cancer is, your doctor may recommend treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, percutaneous ethanol injections (a technique where pure alcohol is introduced into the cancer cells with the goal of eradicating them), and hepatic arterial infusions (involving placement of a pump inside the abdomen that delivers chemotherapy to the liver).

Your doctor's notes should describe what treatments you're undergoing, how effective they are, and whether you experience any side effects.

Getting Disability for Liver Cancer With Reduced Functional Capacity

Because liver cancer is such a serious diagnosis, most applicants with the disease (and the appropriate medical documentation) are going to qualify for disability benefits under a medical listing. But in the unlikely event that your condition doesn't meet listing 13.19 or 5.09—for example, doctors aren't certain of your diagnosis or you've undergone successful treatment—you can still qualify for disability benefits if you have a residual functional capacity (RFC) that rules out all work.

What's My Residual Functional Capacity?

Your RFC is a set of restrictions on what you can do, physically and mentally, in a work environment. Claims examiners at DDS will review your medical records, self-reported daily activities, and doctors' opinions to determine what activities you can still do and which activities you should avoid on the job.

When completing your application for disability benefits, don't forget to describe any symptoms resulting from chemotherapy, surgery, or any other treatment that affects your ability to work. For example, radiation therapy can cause side effects including weakness, nausea, hand tremors, and increased risk of infection. Social Security is required to include limitations from these side effects in your RFC, and failure to do so is a good basis for an appeal.

How Does Social Security Use My RFC?

Social Security compares your current RFC with the job duties of your past work to see if you could do those jobs today, despite your limitations. If you can't, the agency will then need to determine whether you can do any other jobs in the national economy, using additional factors such as your age, education, and learned transferable skills.

Most applicants under the age of 50 will need to show that their RFC rules out even the least demanding jobs. Because liver cancer is more frequently diagnosed in older people, however, many applicants with the disorder (who aren't already eligible under a listing) may have an easier time getting benefits under a special set of rules known as the medical-vocational grid.

When Should I Apply for Disability Benefits for Liver Cancer?

If you've been diagnosed with liver cancer, you'll likely want to apply for disability benefits as soon as possible. Programs like the Compassionate Allowances List and expedited TERI cases can dramatically reduce the turnaround time from when you file your initial application for benefits to when you receive your first disability payment.

Despite the generally high likelihood of a quick approval, however, you should keep in mind some preliminary issues before you file your application. First, Social Security only awards benefits to applicants who aren't able to work full-time for at least 12 months due to their medical condition. The agency can deny your application if you don't have a one-year period where you're earning below the level of substantial gainful activity (unless you're not working and it's clear you won't be able to work for a year).

Second, you'll need to show that you're legally and financially eligible for the type of disability benefit you're applying for—Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). SSDI is based on how many work credits you've earned, while SSI benefits are only available to people at or below the low income and asset threshold.

Assuming that you meet the above non-medical criteria, you can start your application easily online, over the phone at 800-772-1213 (between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., Monday through Friday), or in person at your local field office.

Should I Contact a Disability Attorney?

While you aren't required to have a representative at any point of the disability determination process, you may want to consider hiring an experienced attorney to help with your application. Your lawyer can:

  • Navigate the disability process for you and make sure that you meet all necessary deadlines.
  • Interact with your doctors to obtain the most persuasive evidence possible of disability, including getting useful medical source statements.
  • Prepare you for a disability hearing (if necessary) and represent you in front of an administrative law judge.

Even if it seems that your evidence of disability is undeniable, it's still a good idea to hire an attorney. If you receive an expedited approval, the fee for your attorney is likely to be low. That's because most attorneys charge 25% of your past-due benefits—and because expedited approvals are paid out so quickly, benefits tend to be minimal. So if all goes well, you're getting a good "deal" on legal representation, and you'll still have somebody to turn to for help if you run across any hiccups in the process.

Updated January 2, 2024

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