How Quickly Can I Get Disability Benefits for Esophageal Cancer?

If you’re applying for Social Security disability benefits because of esophageal cancer, you should be able to get approved quickly. Barrett’s esophagus may be another story.

By , J.D. · Albany Law School
Updated by Bethany K. Laurence, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Esophageal cancer is cancer of the esophagus, which most often occurs in the lower portion of the tube that connects the throat to the stomach. The two main types of esophageal cancer are adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Both qualify for disability benefits through the Social Security Administration (SSA).

Symptoms of Esophageal Cancer

There are typically no signs or symptoms of esophageal cancer in its early stages. When symptoms do begin to occur, they usually include:

  • problems swallowing, including choking when eating
  • chest pain, pressure, or burning
  • fatigue
  • indigestion or heartburn, and
  • coughing or a hoarse voice.

Because esophageal cancer is generally discovered in its later stages, the prognosis for those diagnosed with it is often poor.

Disability Benefits for Esophageal Cancer

Social Security is aware of the severity of esophageal cancer. This makes it easier and faster to qualify for disability benefits based on cancer of the esophagus than for most other cancers and diseases.

Meeting the Disability Listing for Esophageal Cancer

Social Security's listing of impairments details the criteria for some severe medical conditions that can automatically qualify someone for disability benefits. Esophageal cancer is included under listing 13.16.

To qualify under this listing, you must simply show that you have either carcinoma or sarcoma of the esophagus. The stage of your cancer doesn't matter.

Esophageal cancer diagnosis usually involves a biopsy taken during an esophagoscopy/endoscopy, which is a camera sent down your throat to look for cancer. Your doctor might also take an X-ray of your esophagus with a barium swallow (to get a clear picture of your esophageal lining).

As medical evidence of your diagnosis, Social Security requests documentation identifying the origin of malignancy and the areas the cancer has affected. The SSA will want to see the operative notes and pathology reports from the biopsy of your esophageal cancer. And while distant metastases aren't necessary to qualify for disability benefits, also share any tests your doctor did tests to see if the cancer has spread, such as:

  • CT (CAT scan)
  • PET scan, or
  • bone scan.

Social Security also wants to see information about the treatment you've had, including:

  • the type, duration, and frequency
  • the cancer's response, and
  • any residual impairments after treatment.

Esophageal Cancer Qualifies for an Expedited Decision

Social Security's Compassionate Allowance program was created to speed up the disability determination process for severe impairments that obviously meet disability standards. These applications are fast-tracked: Social Security aims to award benefits to those who qualify for compassionate allowances within 20 days of the application.

To qualify for a compassionate allowance for esophageal cancer, you must provide evidence that you meet the above medical listing. Social Security suggests your file should include specific evidence, including the following:

  • a pathology report from a biopsy taken during esophagoscopy
  • evidence of a clinical history and examination that describes the diagnostic features of esophageal cancer, and
  • diagnostic imaging reports (X-rays, CTs, and other scans).

Social Security won't deny an application for a Compassionate Allowance simply for lack of medical evidence. But providing as much medical evidence as possible helps ensure your decision isn't delayed.

If you're applying for disability benefits based on esophageal cancer, you should note "Compassionate Allowances" on your application. For more information, see our article on Compassionate Allowances.

Is Barrett's Esophagus a Disability?

Chronic heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can lead to a condition called "Barrett's esophagus," where the esophageal lining becomes damaged and thickened. Those with Barrett's esophagus can develop adenocarcinoma of the esophagus, the most common type of esophageal cancer.

But unless it leads to cancer, Barrett's esophagus generally doesn't qualify as a disability under Social Security rules, except when:

  • your Barrett's symptoms affect your ability to function so much that you can't do any type of work, and
  • those debilitating symptoms have lasted or are expected to last at least a year.

When you claim disability based on an impairment (like Barrett's esophagus) that doesn't meet the requirements of a listing, Social Security assesses how the condition affects your residual functional capacity (RFC).

Your RFC is the most you can be expected to do in a work setting, given the functional limitations caused by your medical condition. Your RFC is expressed as a rating for the kind of work you can still do, such as:

  • sedentary work (like a desk job)
  • light work (jobs requiring light lifting or a lot of standing)
  • medium work (jobs requiring more exertion than light work), and
  • heavy or very heavy (jobs with a lot of exertion).

If you can't do even sedentary work because of the limitations caused by an extremely severe case of Barrett's esophagus, you might meet the medical requirements for disability benefits. Learn more about getting disability benefits based on your functional limitations.

Can You Lose Benefits for Disability Based on Cancer?

Esophageal cancer is severe and can't be cured. But there are cases where someone's esophageal cancer has gone into remission.

You can collect disability for as long as your cancer prevents you from working. But if your cancer goes into remission and there's no evidence of cancer for three or more years, your disability benefits could stop.

In other words, if your esophageal cancer goes into remission, Social Security will consider you disabled for up to three years after the start of your complete remission. And if your cancer reappears, the three-year time limit won't begin again until your cancer is back in full remission.

What If a Patient Dies Before Disability Benefits Are Paid?

Unfortunately, because esophageal cancer is often not caught until its later stages, the prognosis for survival can be poor.

Someone who applies for Supplemental Security Income (SSI)—a needs-based disability benefit—will receive benefits right away. But once you're approved for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits, there's a five-month waiting period before benefits begin.

In the sad case where someone dies of esophageal cancer before Social Security approves their disability benefits, the applicant's family members can pursue those benefits. In any of the following cases, family members can collect the disability benefits owed to an applicant who died:

  • The person died after filing a disability application.
  • The person died while going through the appeals process.
  • The person died after being approved for SSDI, but payments hadn't yet started due to the five-month waiting period.
  • The person died after sending a written statement notifying Social Security of an intent to file for disability benefits (giving family members six months to file an application for a closed period of disability benefits).
  • The person died without contacting Social Security about benefits or applying for disability (in this case, family members have three months after a death due to esophageal cancer to file an application on their loved ones' behalf).

For further information on the ability of family members to continue an open disability claim or start a new claim, see our article on disability claims and appeals after death. Your dependents might also be eligible for ongoing Social Security survivors benefits.

How to Apply for Disability Benefits for Esophageal Cancer

When you have a serious medical condition like esophageal cancer, you should apply for disability benefits as soon as possible. The fastest way to apply for SSDI or SSI is to submit an online application. The date you start your online application counts as your filing date, which can affect how soon your benefits start and how much you get.

You can also apply by phone or in person, but you'll need an appointment to do so. You can make an appointment to submit a phone application by calling Social Security's national number at 800-772-1213. Or contact your local Social Security field office for an appointment to apply in person.

You can begin the application process even if you don't have all the information or documentation you need. Social Security can help you gather any missing information. And the sooner you file, the sooner your disability benefits can start.

Learn more about the easiest ways to apply for Social Security disability benefits.

Updated January 12, 2024

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