When you’re dealing with a diagnosis of breast cancer, or already going through treatment, your health is obviously top priority. But making sure you have financial support is also crucial.

Disability benefits can give you some much-needed peace of mind when you’re dealing with treatment side effects and taking time to heal, but navigating the system and understanding if you qualify can be a challenge.

This is especially true for those with early stage breast cancer, according to Sophie Summers, a human resources manager at software firm RapidAPI.

“In the initial stage of breast cancer, you have to cross more miles to get disability benefits,” she says. “Those suffering from stage 3 or above are more likely to medically qualify, but there are still ways to get some benefits, such as coverage of medications.”

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is a federal disability insurance benefit for those who have worked and paid into Social Security. According to the American Cancer Society, those who have any type of cancer may be able to have an SSDI application processed more quickly.

Benefits are limited to those who are unable to “perform substantial gainful activity,” according to Liz Supinski, director of data science at the Society for Human Resource Management.

There are limits on how much a person can earn and still collect, she says. It’s about $1,200 for most people, or around $2,000 per month for those who are blind.

“That means most people who are able to qualify for disability benefits are not working for others,” Supinski says. “Self-employment is common among both disabled workers and those with disabilities severe enough to qualify for benefits.”

For those with stage 1 or stage 2 breast cancer, you’ll need to “come through the medical-vocational allowance door,” Summers says. “Usually, this involves providing financial documentation that you’re unable to make more than $1,220 per month because of breast cancer.”

You should also be able to prove that your breast cancer affects what’s called your “residual functional capacity for work.”

For example, you may not be able to stand for longer periods of time, lift a certain amount of weight, or use your hands and arms efficiently, which can be results of treatments like surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.

Your application may be faster, and more likely to be approved, if you’re on the Compassionate Allowances list of the Social Security Administration. For breast cancer, this list includes:

  • stage 4 breast carcinoma
  • metastatic breast carcinoma
  • metastatic breast cancer
  • stage 4 ductal carcinoma
  • metastatic ductal carcinoma
  • metastatic ductal cancer
  • stage 4 lobular carcinoma
  • metastatic lobular cancer

To make sure the process is streamlined, it’s helpful to compile all your paperwork. This way, when you’re asked for proof of your diagnosis, treatment, and side effects, you’ll have the information handy.

“Your medical documentation should prove that cancer is a hindrance to doing full-time work,” Summers says. “Meeting just one clause in the SSA listings is enough, and for this, it’s likely you have to provide all types of medical test reports associated with your disease.”

She adds that examples include:

  • blood lab reports
  • ultrasounds or mammograms for diagnosis
  • progress reports
  • lymph node biopsy results that support the grade of your breast cancer

Along with requesting disability benefits, you can also cover the cost of medications by applying for an exemption certificate, Summers adds.

One more important consideration as you navigate through the process: Keep in mind that SSDI is different from Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

SSI is a program that pays benefits based on financial need and is not based on work credits. The Benefits Eligibility Screening Tool (BEST) can help you decide where to look as a starting point.

Navigating through the disability benefits process can be challenging when you’re also in the midst of treatment, but understanding its nuances, and knowing what’s available, can help streamline the process.

Consider reaching out to representatives at your local Social Security Administration field office who can help you apply for SSDI and SSI benefits. You can make an appointment by calling 800-772-1213, or complete an application online at the SSA website.


Elizabeth Millard lives in Minnesota with her partner, Karla, and their menagerie of farm animals. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including SELF, Everyday Health, HealthCentral, Runner’s World, Prevention, Livestrong, Medscape, and many others. You can find her and way too many cat photos on her Instagram.