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Cancer in any form is a disabling condition to some extent. However, one mistake many claimants make is thinking that a person with cancer in any form will be automatically approved for Social Security Disability benefits.


Cancer and its associated treatments must leave you unable to work for at least 12 months to be eligible for Social Security Disability benefits.

Because cancer treatments like chemotherapy and surgery are naturally disruptive to one’s employment, medical documentation and notes from doctors and specialists are important to prove disability.  Many people use accumulated vacation, personal leave and sick days. This creates the appearance that they are still earning the same amount of money by working. Claimants can document the true onset date of their condition by keeping accurate records. Keep records of the hours/days they missed work. Keep a calendar showing how many days a month they had appointments. Save every pay stub so it is easy to show how much of the earnings were not for work but for vacation, leave, and sick days.

Some forms of aggressive cancer can qualify for Social Security’s Compassionate Allowances program.

The Compassionate Allowances program ensures that Social Security Disability applications are processed and reviewed as soon as possible.  Most types of cancer qualify for a Compassionate Allowance if one or more of the following are true:

  • The cancer keeps coming back, despite treatment
  • The cancer has spread beyond its starting point
  • The cancer is inoperable

To learn more about Social Security’s Compassionate Allowances program, see this blog post.

If you continue to work while you are going through cancer treatment…

People with cancer often recover from the side effects of their treatment before 12 months and continue to work while they are getting care — like the late Gwen Ifill.  

Many oncologists want their patients to be optimistic and stay active. They are hesitant to help prove their patient is “disabled.” They often do not understand how the Social Security regulations define “disabled.”

What can you do to improve your chances of being approved?

Ask the oncologist or primary doctor to write a letter or make a comment in the office visit notes about how many days a month the person will miss work and for how many months or what percentage of time a person would miss due to treatment or side effects.  Help your doctor understand that claimants can receive benefits for a “closed period” as long as the period of disability is at least 12 continuous months.

Claimants can also ask their caregiver to fill out a Third Party Function Report or write a short letter explaining the things the claimant now needs assistance with.

All of these strategies for dealing with cancer and Social Security Disability require the experience and insight of a seasoned Southern Illinois Social Security Disability representative.

Keep in mind that if a case is not approved at the first or second stage the current wait time for a hearing for the Evansville, Indiana hearing office (ODAR) is almost 2 years from the second appeal. Retaining a representative after the first denial is a very good idea especially for claimants with aggressive cancers who might have less than two years to live.

Joni Beth Bailey is a Southern Illinois Social Security Disability attorney.


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