Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the world as of 2021. Each year in the United States, about 264,000 cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in women and 2,400 cases in men. While breast cancer has a high rate of remission (meaning signs and symptoms of the cancer go away) when diagnosed early, side effects from treatment can last for a long time.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) recognizes that treatment for breast cancer can take a large toll on the body and the mind. If you've been unable to work for at least a year after receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer, you might qualify for Social Security disability benefits.
A diagnosis of breast cancer is made based on imaging (such as an MRI or PET scan), mammograms, and biopsies. Treatment options include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, hormone therapy, lumpectomy, and mastectomy, most of which can cause serious side effects, extended recovery periods, or both.
When you apply for disability benefits, make sure that you let Social Security know the names and dates of your doctors' visits so that the agency can get those important records.
Depending on the extent of your breast cancer and whether it has metastasized—spread to other parts of your body—you can get disability benefits in one of three ways:
The SSA has a list of over 200 illnesses that the agency considers especially severe. Applicants with medical documentation of these conditions can automatically qualify for disability. If you have Stage 4 breast cancer, you can qualify under the Compassionate Allowances List (CAL) and have your application processed quicker so you can receive benefits faster.
If you have an earlier stage of breast cancer, such as Stage 2 or Stage 3, you might qualify for disability based on Social Security's "listing" for breast cancer. A "listed impairment" is a condition that isn't quite as serious as a CAL condition but is still considered disabling.
Breast cancer is one of the listed impairments. To determine whether you're disabled according to listing 13.10 for breast cancer, the SSA will look at your medical record for evidence of at least one of the following:
You can show your doctor the breast cancer listing and ask your doctor's opinion as to whether your cancer meets any of the above criteria.
Disability applicants in the earliest stages of breast cancer don't often have medical records that satisfy the requirements of the breast cancer listing (usually because the cancer hasn't spread or returned after treatment). Even if you don't qualify for disability benefits based on the listing, Social Security can find that your breast cancer is a disability if the agency thinks that no jobs exist that you can do with your residual functional capacity (RFC).
Your RFC is a set of limitations that represent the most you're able to do, physically and mentally, in a work setting. Because treatments for breast cancer can cause pain and fatigue, a typical RFC for somebody with breast cancer will include restrictions on how much weight you can lift, how long you can stand for, and whether you can perform skilled or unskilled jobs.
If you can't perform your past work with your current RFC and you can't do any other jobs, you'll qualify for disability benefits. Learn more about how to get a medical-vocational allowance here.
The SSA provides many ways to apply for disability benefits:
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that allows eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks off work for a "serious health condition," which includes breast cancer. FMLA leave is unpaid, but some states offer their own version of the FMLA that provides paid leave. (Find out about your state's rules here.)
FMLA leave can be a good option for people with a Stage 1 breast cancer diagnosis who will likely respond well to treatment. Because Social Security doesn't provide "short-term" disability benefits for less than twelve months, if your cancer goes into remission and you return to work before one year, you can't qualify for Social Security disability benefits. But you can take FMLA leave for up to 12 weeks. Under the FMLA, your employer must hold your job for you.
Updated September 29, 2022