What Types of Cancer Qualify for Disability?

Whether your cancer qualifies for disability depends on the type, location, and prognosis of the cancer, and how well it responds to treatment.

Updated by , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Some types of cancer respond well to treatment if they're caught early, while other types of cancer are more aggressive and harder to stop, especially if they're not caught until the later stages. Many applicants with cancer can qualify for disability if they're unable to work due to cancer symptoms or the side effects of treatment.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) approves Social Security disability and SSI disability claims on the basis of cancer in one of two ways:

  • The cancer can meet the requirements of a specific cancer "listing" in Social Security's list of impairments.
  • Social Security will grant a "medical-vocational allowance" if the agency determines the applicant can't return to their past work or do other work.

The SSA will also expedite claims for some advanced cancers that are on the Compassionate Allowances list (more on this below).

Is a Diagnosis of Cancer All That's Needed for Disability Approval?

Although a diagnosis of cancer is serious, it doesn't guarantee approval for Social Security disability. With many forms of cancer, for a guaranteed approval, the cancer has to:

  • be inoperable (versus being able to be controlled with treatment)
  • have distant metastases (has spread to other parts of the body), or
  • be recurrent (came back) after surgical procedures or irradiation.

But certain types of cancer are entitled to an immediate approval for disability benefits, whether or not they're inoperable, metastatic, or recurrent. Some of the 27 listings for cancer ("neoplastic disease") in Social Security's "Blue Book" don't require evidence of the cancer's progression.

For example, the following are types of cancer that will meet one of Social Security's official listings for disability based on a diagnosis of the cancer alone:

  • inflammatory breast cancer
  • esophageal cancer
  • gall bladder cancer
  • liver cancer
  • pancreatic cancer
  • pleural or peritoneal mesothelioma
  • oat cell lung cancer (small cell lung cancer)
  • primary cancer of the liver
  • cancer of the bile ducts, and
  • certain types of brain or spinal cord cancers

These cancer cases are decided on the basis of medical record documentation of the diagnosis, including physician's office notes and reports of blood work and imaging studies (X-rays, MRI, and CT scans), as well as admission and discharge summaries from hospitals.

But medical eligibility is just one part of qualifying for disability. In addition to having a qualifying medical condition, applicants can't be doing a substantial amount of work when they apply for disability, and they need to meet the work history or financial qualifications of the SSDI or SSI program. For more information, see our section on the non-medical requirements of Social Security disability and SSI.

Does Metastatic Cancer Automatically Qualify for Disability Benefits?

If an individual's cancer has spread beyond the regional lymph nodes, the individual will most likely be automatically approved for disability benefits based on meeting one of Social Security's listings for cancer. In fact, many progressive cancers are eligible for expedited benefits as "compassionate allowances."

Social Security's Compassionate Allowances List (CAL) includes many aggressive cancers. Every condition on this list will automatically qualify for expedited approval of benefits, meaning you could get a decision in less than a month.

There are more than 90 different types of cancer on the CAL, too many to list here. But here are some of the more common cancers that will meet a listing and qualify for an expedited approval if they have metastasized:

  • adrenal cancer
  • bladder cancer
  • breast cancer
  • colon cancer
  • head and neck cancers
  • liposarcoma
  • melanoma
  • osteosarcoma (bone cancer)
  • ovarian cancer
  • prostate cancer
  • small intestine cancer
  • stomach cancer, and
  • ureter cancer.

If your cancer spreads after you apply, you should alert Social Security that your cancer has metastasized. If you were already denied benefits, you can reapply for benefits using a new application and request a compassionate allowance.

What if an Applicant's Cancer Doesn't Meet a Listing?

Many cancers, especially those that are detected early, won't meet the requirements of a disability listing, usually because they're not inoperable, recurrent, or metastatic.

For these claims, Social Security will decide whether to grant disability benefits under a "medical-vocational allowance." This analysis looks at your ability to do full-time work, based on your work history and your medical records.

In addition to the physical limitations brought on by cancer or cancer treatment, Social Security will consider any long-term side effects of cancer treatment, such as cognitive issues including memory disorders and slowed thought processes. If the SSA decides you can't return to your past line of work, the agency will use its medical-vocational grid rules in deciding whether someone of your age, limitations, and work skills could do other work.

What Medical Evidence Is Required for a Disability Determination?

Your documentation should include a diagnosis of cancer that can be verified by symptoms, lab findings, and/or clinical signs, along with a statement that includes the origin of the cancer and whether the malignant tumor is a primary, recurrent, or metastatic tumor.

Social Security can also use operative reports from biopsies and surgeries that include the gross and microscopic examination of the tissues along with any other pertinent observations as part of their case documentation.

Additionally, when making a disability determination and evaluating how a malignant tumor impairs an applicant, Social Security considers:

  • the location of the neoplastic (cancerous) lesion
  • the formation and development of the tumor
  • the degree of involvement
  • the response to treatment, and
  • the severity of residual symptoms post-treatment.

Read more about the specific requirements for getting disability benefits for the most common cancers.

Do Cancer Cases Qualify for Permanent Payments?

Social Security disability approvals can't be considered permanent if an applicant has a chance for medical improvement. Disability approvals based on cancer are no different.

For many types of cancer, Social Security will start a continuing disability review three years after benefits start, to see if you are still disabled.

If the original tumor and any metastatic disease appear to have disappeared and have not been evident for three years or more, the impairment might no longer meet the disability criteria for cancer. But post-cancer, some individuals won't have the "residual functional capacity" (RFC) to work. (RFC is what an individual is able to do in spite of the limitations imposed by the condition or the residual effects of treatment.)

If you still have significant post-treatment residual symptoms that severely restrict your ability to work, you might be able to continue to receive disability benefits. To terminate benefits, Social Security has to prove that your condition has medically improved to the point that you have the RFC to work. For more information, see our section on continuing disability reviews.

Updated April 5, 2024

Do You Qualify for Disability in Your State?
Find out in minutes by taking our short quiz.

Talk to a Disability Lawyer

Need a lawyer? Start here.

How it Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you
Boost Your Chance of Being Approved

Get the Compensation You Deserve

Our experts have helped thousands like you get cash benefits.

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you