What to Know About Social Security Disability During Cancer Treatment

What to Know About Social Security Disability During Cancer Treatment

Reviewed by Jasper Clinical Board

Last updated 5/24/21

A cancer diagnosis often brings with it financial concerns. Along with medical bills, you may be worried about losing income from your job if you can’t work during your illness and treatment. Fortunately, the federal government has two major financial support programs that may be able to help people looking for Social Security Disability. Both are for people facing long-term disability that prevents them from working for at least a year. 
Let’s break down what you need to know about these programs—Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Federal disability benefits 101

The Social Security Administration runs both SSDI and SSI. Both programs require you to meet the same strict disability criteria, based on your medical condition.

SSI & SSDI: What’s the difference? 

SSDI is an insurance program funded by deductions taken from your paychecks, or your self-employment tax paid to the IRS if you have your own business or work as a freelancer. You have to meet work history requirements in order to qualify for SSDI, and your benefit amount is based on your earnings history. You also need to have worked fairly recently before your disability began and for a certain minimum duration. Older people have longer work duration requirements than younger people. 
SSI is for people who don’t qualify for SSDI, or who qualify for only very small SSDI payments. You generally have to earn very little income and have few other resources in order to qualify for SSI. Both programs provide you with monthly payments if you qualify. 

Both programs are for people with long-term disability

One important feature of these programs is that they are both for people expected to be seriously disabled for a long time. To qualify for benefits, your condition has to prevent you from working for a year or longer. People who aren’t expected to survive their cancer also qualify for benefits.
To decide on your claim, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will consider your medical condition and the kind of work you’ve done in the past, as well as your educational history, skill set, and age. They’ll assess not just whether you can do your most recent job, but also whether there are other kinds of work you might be able to do instead.

Getting payments can take time

The application process for these programs is lengthy and can be complex. Both programs can take months or even longer to give you a decision and start paying benefits. 
SSDI includes a five-month waiting period from the date your disability began before payments can start. That said, just as with many jobs, you get paid for the previous month's disability. In other words, while you are eligible to be paid after five months of disability, you typically see your first check after six months. 
Regardless of how long it takes to approve your application, SSDI pays back the benefits you’re owed based on the date you became disabled. So it’s very important to work with your doctors to document any limitations on your activities caused by your cancer and treatments as soon as you experience them. 
To this end, tell your healthcare team you’re applying for benefits. They should be familiar with the documentation requirements, but you should still remind them to make notes in your chart about how your cancer and treatment are impacting your functioning. This will strengthen your application and make it more likely to win approval without delays or requests for more evidence.
For SSI, you won’t receive back payments before the effective date of application, so it’s especially important to start the application process as soon as you can. You can either call the Social Security Administration to make an appointment to file your SSI application or you can file an online application. If you choose the former option, as long as you file within 60 days of the call, the date you called to make an appointment will be considered the effective date of application. 

Faster decisions for certain conditions

The Social Security Administration automatically fast-tracks benefit applications for people with certain obviously serious medical conditions, including many cancers. The diagnoses that qualify for rapid processing are called “Compassionate Allowances Conditions.” 
The SSA automatically checks your application to see if your medical condition qualifies you for this expedited application process. Decisions are supposed to be made within 30 days of the SSA's receipt of a complete application. For SSDI, you’ll still have a five-month waiting period before you can start getting payments, but getting a decision faster can give you some peace of mind and help you plan for the future. 

Expect to appeal if your initial claim is denied

Many people who eventually get approved for benefits are initially denied. If you applied for both programs and received a denial letter from one program, it may well just mean that you were approved for the other. However, if you’re denied for everything you applied for (be it one program or both), keep in mind that a good proportion of people who receive a true denial do win their appeal. In many cases, it’s just about supplying more information. Because of this, the best thing you can do to avoid this kind of delay and additional headache is to work with your medical team to thoroughly document limitations on your activities as early as possible. The more evidence you can provide with your disability application, the less likely you’ll be to experience delays or a denial. 
Most importantly, don’t give up. Going through the appeals process is worth it, since it very often leads to approval once you’ve provided more evidence for your claim.

When should you apply?

While SSDI and SSI can provide much-needed financial help, you may have to draw on other resources to cover your immediate living expenses for a while—possibly a long while—as you wait for any benefits to kick in. For this reason, it’s crucial to start the application process as early as possible. Even if you are not disabled yet, if it’s likely you will become disabled and unable to work for a year or longer, you should start preparing now.
Here are three steps you can take right away:

1. Get familiar with the eligibility requirements and application process. 

The Social Security Administration’s website includes lots of detailed information about both SSDI and SSI, who qualifies, and how to apply. It also lists the documents you’ll need to prepare (you can find them here, as well). 

2. Get help with your application if you need it. 

Because applying can be confusing and difficult—and comes at a time that’s likely to be stressful already—it’s a good idea to get help from someone who knows the ropes. Ask your medical team if they can connect you with a social worker or benefits specialist. There may also be nonprofit organizations or local government agencies that can help. Ask at the library, your local city and county government offices, and search online. You may also consider hiring an attorney. Most don’t require upfront payment, but instead work for a percentage of your disability payment if the case is successful. 

3. Tell your medical team you’re applying for benefits & ask for documentation of your disability. 

Have your doctors put in writing how your cancer and treatment are impacting your functioning. Tell them all the symptoms you are experiencing, both mental and physical, and how they limit your activities, including performing your job duties. Make sure they put this in your medical chart. You should also ask for a letter to support your benefit application. It will describe your symptoms in detail and explain how they interfere with your ability to perform your job duties and other activities.

The content on this website is intended to provide the best possible information for you, but should not be considered—or used as a substitute for—medical advice. If you have questions about your diagnosis or treatment, please contact your health care provider(s). For questions or comments about this content, please email us at