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How Disabling is Cancer?

Everyone knows someone whose life has been impacted by cancer. Close to 15 million people in the United States are currently living with cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be another 1.7 million new diagnoses in 2017.

If you or someone you love has cancer, it might be difficult to continue working at the capacity that you had been working before your diagnosis. Leaving work to deal with your health can cause significant financial stress to you and your family. If you find yourself facing this situation, there could be financial help available to you. The Social Security Administration (SSA) oversees programs to assist those who have become disabled due to diseases such as cancer.

What Exactly Is Cancer?

Your body is made up of trillions of cells. Normally, these cells grow and divide to form new cells as the body needs them. When the body no longer needs the cells, they die, and new cells take their place.

With cancer, some of the body’s cells begin to divide and spread, even if they are not needed. These cells can divide so much that they form a tumor. Cancers are named for the organ or location in which it began. If cancer spreads from its origin to another part of the body, it’s said to have metastasized.

While a cancer diagnosis is certainly devastating, cancer treatments have improved tremendously. In fact, the five-year survival rate for all cancers combined is approximately 66%, with survival rates for some types of cancer exceeding 90%.

Cancer and Social Security Benefits

Debate remains as to whether or not cancer can be “cured.” The American Cancer Society defines cure as when all traces of cancer have been removed from the body. However, as doctors can’t completely know when all cancer has eliminated, it is often said to be in “remission.” While a cure may not be possible in most situations, the treatment options can extend a person’s lifespan as well as improve their quality of life.

What Can I Expect?

There are over 100 different types of cancer. What to expect will depend on the kind of cancer you have, what stage it is, and what kind of treatment you will get. How you feel will also largely depend on your overall health and fitness before your diagnosis. Some people can continue to go on with their everyday activities, while others might find that they are exhausted and need much more rest.

Below are some possible symptoms that you might experience, as well as some possible treatment side effects. These symptoms and side effects might qualify you for benefits through the SSA:

  • The symptoms of cancer vary dramatically. Many people feel extremely tired, some people may have a fever, and some may lose weight.
  • Many people with cancer undergo surgery, especially if the cancer is contained to one area. It’s often difficult for a surgeon to tell how much surgery will be needed until the surgery is underway. If you need surgery, you will likely need to be out of work as your body recovers.
  • Radiation therapy is often used during cancer treatment, especially if you have a tumor in one area. Side effects from radiation vary, but most people feel very tired. Some people lose their appetite. Others may experience diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, and skin changes. Many individuals who receive radiation therapy must miss some work to get therapy, and often need additional time off to deal with the side effects.
  • Sometimes a strong medication called chemotherapy is used to treat cancers. Chemotherapy, or “chemo” for short, is given through the bloodstream. The side effects of chemo depend on the type of drug, how long you need to take it, and your overall health. As chemo goes through your whole body, it tends to have substantial side effects such as nausea, vomiting, and exhaustion. Some people experience increased infections, bleeding, and anemia.
  • Some people with cancer experience pain and anxiety. There are medications that can treat those symptoms, but they may make you sleepy or forgetful at times. If the medications needed to function are causing side effects that impact your work, you may also be eligible for social security benefits.

Any of the above treatments and symptoms of cancer may make it difficult to continue working at the capacity with which you are used to. The majority of people with cancer require time away from work to receive treatments, as well as to rest and recover.

Do I Qualify for Benefits?

If you have been diagnosed with cancer, there is a good chance that you will be eligible for Social Security benefits. Additionally, depending on the type of cancer you have, you may qualify for a Compassionate Allowance (CAL). Compassionate Allowances are a quick way for the government to grant financial help to those who have severe illnesses.

If your cancer has spread, if it is inoperable, or if the side effects from your treatments keep you from working, you may qualify for a CAL. Even if you are not eligible for a CAL, you may still qualify for financial assistance through social security.

What Information Will I Need to Provide?

When applying for Social Security, you may be asked to provide the following:

  • Confirmation of your diagnosis of cancer from your oncologist, including biopsy results or a pathology report.
  • Physician notes discussing your symptoms, treatments, limitations, and long-term prognosis.
  • Reports from your surgeon.
  • X-rays, MRIs, or CAT scans showing the location of your tumor or spread of the disease.
  • Lab blood work results.
  • Records from other practitioners that are assisting you with your condition, such as a Physical Therapist or Psychologist.

The more medical information that you can have available, the quicker your application can be completed and the sooner you will be able to receive social security benefits.

I'd Like to Apply. What’s Next?

If you have been diagnosed with cancer and you believe that you may qualify for Social Security benefits, you should contact a disability advocate or lawyer in your area. Cancer is a scary diagnosis, and your priority should be your health. A qualified attorney can help to take the burden off of you by guiding you in the right direction when navigating the Social Security application process.