Lymphoma: When Disability Benefits Are Available

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Hodgkin’s disease are included in Social Security's "blue book" of disability listings.

Updated by , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Lymphoma is the result of a cancerous tumor that affects the lymphatic system. Lymphomas are usually divided into two categories: Hodgkin's disease and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Only 1% of lymphomas are Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Generally, Hodgkin lymphoma affects younger individuals and responds well to treatment. Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL) usually affects middle-aged individuals and is more difficult to treat.

Symptoms and Treatment of Lymphoma

The symptoms of Hodgkin lymphoma or NHL can include any of the following:

  • weight loss
  • fatigue
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • fever
  • anemia, and
  • shortness of breath.

Treatment options for lymphoma usually include:

  • radiation therapy
  • chemotherapy
  • surgical procedures, and
  • other biological therapies, like interferons.

Both Hodgkin's disease and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma can be debilitating and might qualify you for disability benefits through the Social Security Administration (SSA).

How to Qualify for Disability Benefits for Hodgkin Lymphoma or NHL

There are several ways to get disability payments for lymphoma, depending on which Social Security program benefits you apply for and your medical condition.

Which Social Security Disability Benefits Are You Eligible For?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) administers two types of benefits that you might qualify to receive:

  • Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits, and
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits.

SSDI works something like long-term disability insurance in that you have to be "insured" to collect benefits. To be insured for SSDI benefits, you must have worked (and paid Social Security taxes) long enough and recently enough. (Learn more about SSDI's work requirements.)

SSI is a needs-based program that pays benefits to people with disabilities who meet the program's financial criteria. If you haven't worked enough to be eligible for SSDI, you might qualify for SSI, depending on your income and other resources. (Learn more about how the SSI disability program works.)

Does Your Lymphoma Qualify Medically for Disability Benefits?

Whether you apply for SSDI or SSI, you must be medically qualified to receive disability benefits. First, Social Security won't consider you disabled if you're working enough to earn more than a threshold amount, which the SSA calls "substantial gainful activity" or "SGA." (The SGA limit changes each year based on inflation. For 2023, it's $1,470 per month. For 2024, it's $1,550 per month.)

Next, you must have a medical condition that has lasted (or is expected to last) at least a year or for the rest of your life. And you must show that your condition causes you to meet Social Security's definition of "disabled." You can do that by either:

  • proving that your impairment meets (or "equals") the requirements of a disability listing, or
  • proving that your medical condition prevents you from working even the least demanding jobs.

Getting Benefits by Meeting a Disability Listing

One of the tools Social Security uses to determine whether someone is disabled is a listing of impairments called the "Blue Book." If you have one of the listed conditions and you meet the requirements of the listing, you'll automatically qualify for disability benefits. Both Hodgkin's disease and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma are listed conditions (under listing 13.05).

Meeting the Listing for Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma

To be automatically approved for disability based on non-Hodgkin's lymphoma under listing 13.05, you must be diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma that is either:

  • mantle cell lymphoma
  • indolent lymphoma that requires more than one round of chemo or radiation within a year, or
  • aggressive lymphoma that doesn't go away after an initial round of chemo or radiation.

Indolent lymphomas are slow growing and include follicular small cleaved cell and mycosis fungoides. Aggressive lymphomas are fast growing and include diffuse large B-cell lymphoma.

Meeting the Listing for Hodgkin's Disease

To be approved for disability based on Hodgkin's disease, you need to have Hodgkin's lymphoma that doesn't go into complete remission or returns within one year of finishing chemo or radiation. (Social Security treats Hodgkin's lymphoma that returns more than a year after treatment as a new disease, so it won't meet the listing.)

Meeting the Lymphoma Listing With a Transplant

If your lymphoma requires a bone marrow transplant or stem cell transplant, you'll automatically be approved for benefits for one year from the date of your transplant procedure.

Evidence Needed to Meet the Lymphoma Listing

Although having a diagnosis from your doctor is essential, you'll also need to share all your diagnostic testing and treatment records with Social Security. Your test results and treatment records should back up your diagnosis and your doctor's statements about the severity of your condition.

Specifically, to meet Social Security's lymphoma listing, you must provide tissue or lab reports and imaging reports such as:

  • bone marrow aspiration and biopsy
  • CT scan
  • MRI
  • PET scan, and
  • blood tests.

And your doctor's records should include a description of how advanced your cancer is and how it has reacted to treatment.

Lymphoma That Doesn't Meet the SSA's Listing Requirements

If your lymphoma doesn't meet the above listing requirements, you might still qualify for disability benefits under a "medical-vocational allowance." To qualify this way, you must show that your symptomsor the side effects of treatmentseverely limit your activities and your ability to function day-to-day in a work environment.

For instance, if your lymphoma or treatment causes fatigue that requires you to take frequent rest breaks or interferes with your ability to keep up with the pace a job requires, the types of jobs you can still do will be limited. Or, if you have pain from surgery to remove lymph nodes, it can limit the range of motions in your arms or legs and limit you in:

  • how much activity you can do, and
  • how much weight you can lift.

Social Security must consider these functional limitations if they're included (in writing) on your disability application or in your doctor's records. The SSA will pull together these limitations into one place by creating an assessment of your "residual functional capacity," or RFC.

For Social Security to approve your disability benefits based on a medical-vocational allowance, your RFC must show that:

  • you can't do your prior job, and
  • you can't do any other work (based on your job skills and education).

Whether Social Security finds that you can or can't do other work depends greatly on your age. Learn more about getting disability benefits based on a medical-vocational allowance.

How to Apply for Disability Benefits for Lymphoma

To receive Social Security disability benefits, you must file an application. The best way to apply for disability benefits will depend on your individual circumstances, including whether you're applying for SSDI, SSI, or both.

If you're applying for SSDI, the fastest way to get your claim started is to file your application online. A claims examiner will then contact you (usually by phone) to set up a disability interview.

If you're applying for SSI, you can start your application online, but you'll need to speak with a Social Security representative to complete it. After you complete the online portion of the SSI application, Social Security will send you an appointment (by mail) to finish your application.

You can also apply for SSDI or SSI by calling Social Security's national office at 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778) and making an appointment to apply by phone. Or by contacting your local Social Security field office for an appointment.

Learn more about what to expect at your Social Security interview, including what you can do to prepare for it.

Updated October 30, 2023

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