When Can I Get Disability Benefits for Lung Cancer?

Whether you'll be approved for Social Security disability benefits for lung cancer depends on the type of cancer and its progression.

By , Attorney (Willamette University College of Law)
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney (Seattle University School of Law)

Lung cancer is the result of uncontrolled cell growth in lung tissue, but the cancer can spread outside of the lungs into other areas of the body (called metastasis). Early stages of lung cancer may not cause any symptoms, but as the cancer progresses, symptoms such as chest pain, fatigue, and breathing problems can interfere with your ability to work full-time.

Depending on the type of lung cancer you've been diagnosed with and whether it has metastasized, you may qualify for disability benefits automatically under Social Security's "Blue Book" listing of impairments.

Types of Lung Cancer That Qualify for Disability

Doctors classify lung cancer into two different groups: small cell cancer and non-small cell cancers.

Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

The three types of non-small cell cancers are squamous cell carcinoma, large cell carcinoma, and adenocarcinoma. These types of lung cancers are more common but spread more slowly than small cell cancer. According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), around 87% of lung cancers are non-small cell lung cancers.

Small Cell Lung Cancer

Small cell cancer is considered very aggressive and it grows quickly. It is also sometimes called oat cell lung cancer or oat cell carcinoma.

Qualifying for Disability Under the SSA Listing for Lung Cancer

If your lung cancer falls into any of the three categories below, your condition will be considered severe enough to fulfill the SSA's disability requirements—known as "meeting the listing"—for lung cancer. If this is your case, then as long as you meet the financial requirements for the specific disability program (SSDI or SSI) that you're applying for, your application for disability benefits should be approved.

The SSA evaluates lung cancer under listing 13.14. You can meet this listing if your medical records contain evidence of the following:

  • small cell lung cancer (just a diagnosis is sufficient)
  • non-small cell lung cancer that is either inoperable, unresectable (meaning that not all of the cancerous tissue was removed during surgery), recurrent, or has metastasized to an important part of your immune system called the hilar lymph nodes, or
  • cancer in the superior sulcus (located at the top of the lungs) that has undergone more than one type of treatment, such as radiation and surgery. If the SSA finds you meet this section of the listing, the agency will reevaluate your case after 18 months to see if you're still disabled.

People with non-small cell cancer who've had the cancer metastasize beyond the hilar lymph nodes will still qualify under listing 13.14 even if a distant tumor resulting from the metastasis has been successfully removed or treated.

Evidence You Need in Your Medical Record for Disability

Once you apply for disability, the SSA will—with your permission—start requesting medical records from doctors, clinics, and hospitals where you've been treated for lung cancer. The agency will want to see the following information in your records:

  • your doctor's diagnosis of lung cancer
  • a biopsy of your primary tumor or tumors
  • the findings of the pathologist who examined your tissue samples
  • medical imaging (such as X-rays or MRIs) of any secondary, metastatic tumors
  • any pulmonary function tests that show diminished lung capacity
  • surgical notes related to the removal of cancerous tissue, and
  • any radiation treatment (such as chemotherapy) that you've undergone.

Keep in mind that if your medical records don't contain evidence of your primary lung tumor and any metastatic tumors for three or more years, Social Security will consider your lung cancer to be in remission and no longer automatically disabling. But even if your cancer is currently in remission, you might be able to qualify for a closed period of disability for the time that you were undergoing cancer treatment.

Qualifying for Disability With a Limited RFC

If you have a diagnosis of lung cancer but don't meet any of the criteria in the lung cancer listing, you can still get disability benefits if your residual functional capacity (RFC) rules out all types of work.

What's in Your RFC?

Your RFC is a set of restrictions that describe the most you're capable of doing in a work environment. Social Security looks at your medical records, your activities of daily living, and any doctors' opinions to determine your RFC.

For example, many people with lung cancer have severe shortness of breath when exerting themselves, so their RFC will likely contain restrictions on how long they can stand or walk and how much weight they can lift. (Strength-related limitations on the type of jobs you can do are called exertional limitations.)

The agency also considers any long-term side effects from cancer treatment, such as memory problems or other cognitive issues, which are then included in your RFC.

How Is Your RFC Used?

Social Security looks at your work history and compares the demands of your past jobs with your current RFC to see if you could do those jobs now. If you can't, the agency then needs to determine whether any other jobs exist that you could do despite the limitations in your RFC.

People 50 years of age and older can sometimes qualify for disability benefits even if the SSA thinks they could do other jobs—as long as they don't have the transferable skills required to adjust to different work.

But most people under 50 will have to show that they can't do even the easiest, sit-down jobs before they can get disability. If the SSA doesn't think you can do a basic desk job or work on an assembly line where you don't have to be on your feet very often, lift heavy objects, or perform detailed tasks, the agency will approve your application for benefits.

Getting Disability Benefits for Related Lung Conditions

Because lung cancer is frequently associated with smoking tobacco, many people with lung cancer have other pulmonary (breathing-related) diseases, such as:

Visit the above articles for information about applying for disability based on those conditions.

Make sure that you document any and all conditions that you think keep you from working, even if they aren't related to your lung cancer. Social Security must consider all medical impairments when deciding whether you're disabled, and even minor limitations on the types of work you can do may—when added up—greatly restrict (or even eliminate) the number of jobs available.

Updated August 3, 2023

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