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Can’t Work? Where to Turn for Help

by Dennis Liotta, Esq

Knowledge image

Figure skating champion and cancer survivor Scott Hamilton once said, “You are going to go through a lot of stuff in your life, and you can look at it as debilitating, or you can look at it as a challenge.”

Dealing with cancer arguably will be one of the hardest things you do in your life. Chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, and other treatments fight the cancer in your body, but they may also leave you with side effects that may leave you unable to work for an extended period of time. And if you can’t work, it can be very hard on you and your family financially – especially with the cost of medical treatments, procedures, and hospital stays.

If your expenses are piling up and you’re having trouble making ends meet, it’s time to consider applying for Social Security disability (SSD) benefits. Due to the troubled economy and high unemployment rate, the Social Security Administration is being flooded with claims. Learning how to navigate the system will increase your chances of being accepted for SSD benefits.

How to Determine Whether You’re Eligible for Benefits
If you can answer yes to the following questions, you may be eligible for SSD benefits:

  • Do you have a physical or mental condition that prevents you from working full time? The diagnosis does not guarantee you benefits; it is whether the disability is severe enough to prevent you from holding a job.
  • Do you have a disability that prohibits you from working in any capacity – not just in the job you held previously?
  • Has your disability lasted – or is expected to last – for at least one year? Or, is the disability life-threatening?
  • Do you have an earnings record that shows you have paid into the Social Security system within the past five years? If you have never held a job, you may be eligible for Supplemental Security Income benefits (SSI).

Getting the SSD benefits you need to live while coping with cancer can be a challenge, but it’s a challenge that can be overcome with knowledge, preparation, patience, and persistence.

Author of Article photo

Dennis Liotta

How to Apply
To get started, contact the Social Security Administration (SSA) at 1-800-772-1213, visit to file online, or make an appointment at a local Social Security District Office.

The claims process can take 120 days or more. Those approved receive SSD benefits after their fifth full month of disability. If approved, your SSD payments are retroactive from the date you were evaluated as disabled. Money you receive is based on your average top earnings over the past 15 years of your work history. However, note that your SSD medical benefits do not kick in until the 29th month from the date you’re considered disabled.

Denied Claims – What to Do
If the SSA denies your claim, don’t panic. The government denies over three-fourths of initial claims, even for people who are entitled to receive SSD benefits. But you must act quickly. You only have 60 days to appeal. You can reapply after that time period, but the process starts all over again.

If you appeal the decision, you’ll go to a hearing, which can take anywhere from 12 to 18 months. Typically, it takes a judge several months to issue a decision. If that doesn’t work, you can move on to the Appeals Council. Lastly, you can pursue a case in Federal Court.

While you can represent yourself at an appeal hearing, you may want to consider contacting an experienced attorney if you get overwhelmed. You will definitely need an attorney at the federal level.

Sometimes the SSA will terminate your benefits if they believe you’ve earned too much money or your condition has improved. However, if your benefits are stopped, you can appeal within 60 days (10 days to continue receiving checks while the appeal is pending).

Navigating the System
Applying for SSD benefits can be a long and complicated process. If you are living with cancer and can’t work, increase your chances of being approved by learning all you can about the Social Security system.

If you want to hire an attorney to help you cut through the red tape, make sure the lawyer has experience handling SSD claims, a track record of success, and preferably a contingent fee policy so that you don’t pay unless you receive benefits.

Getting the SSD benefits you need to live while coping with cancer can be a challenge, but it’s a challenge that can be overcome with knowledge, preparation, patience, and persistence.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Attorney Dennis Liotta, a partner at the law firm of Edgar Snyder & Associates, has over 20 years of experience and has helped people with physical and mental disabilities get Social Security disability benefits. For a comprehensive overview of SSD, with answers to commonly asked questions, download a free guide at

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2012.