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What You Should Know Before Joining a Cancer Clinical Trial

Choosing to join a cancer clinical trial is not an easy decision – and not one that should be made lightly.

Clinical trials are research studies involving patients that help doctors and/or patients find new ways to prevent, treat, diagnose and manage cancer. Before the start of a clinical trial, testing of any new treatment has likely been limited to animals and lab tests. A new drug or treatment must be proven to work in people before it can be approved for general use.

No treatment is without risk. One of the jobs of a clinical trial is to examine side effects to evaluate whether the benefits outweigh the risks. Another key question: Is the new treatment better than what’s already available?

Clinical Trial Benefits

Being involved in a clinical trial can help you in a variety of ways, both physically and mentally. Among the benefits:

  • You can take a more active role in your treatment decisions.
  • Since placebo trials are rare in cancer trials, you will most likely be gaining access to a new treatment. Even in trials where some patients receive a placebo, there is still a minimum standard of care for everyone. So your treatment will not be compromised.
  • By contributing to cancer research, you will be helping other cancer patients.
  • A clinical trial may give you access to a greater number of treatment options.
  • You will likely have better access to your cancer care team, which will be closely monitoring the effectiveness and side effects of the new treatment.
  • In some cancer clinical trials, sponsors will pay for part or all of your medical expenses during the trial.
  • Researchers evaluated the survival of more than 550,000 people with cancer listed in the California Cancer Registry between 2002 and 2006 to determine whether clinical trials help patients regardless of treatment success. They found a 26% drop in the risk of death for cancer patients enrolled in clinical trials, especially for patients with most common cancers, such as lung, colon, and breast cancers.

Choosing a Clinical Trial

If you are thinking about joining a clinical trial, talk it over with your doctors and loved ones. You shouldn’t feel rushed to make a decision.

Write down any questions you might have and get answers before signing up. Among the questions to consider asking:

  • What phase is this trial in? (There are four types of clinical trials, ranging from early phase I studies to more advanced phase IV studies)
  • Who will oversee your care? Will researchers work with your care team?
  • What is the goal of the study?
  • Will you have to pay for anything?
  • Are there any previous studies of the treatment and what were the results?
  • What sorts of treatments and tests are involved?
  • Will you be hospitalized during the trial? If so, who pays for that?
  • Will there be extra travel or time demands?
  • Will you be able to work during the trial?
  • Are there any expected side effects? And if so, how do those compare with the current standard of care?
  • How long will the trial last?
  • If the treatment works, will you be able to continue receiving it after the trial ends?
  • What about long-term follow-ups?
  • How will you learn about the trial’s results?

Things to Consider

One of the myths or misconceptions about clinical trials is that they’re something to turn to only after you’ve exhausted all other treatment options. But that’s not the case. Instead, trials may be something to consider as part of your overall cancer care plan. Some trials are looking at improving the benefit of adding a new drug to the standard of care, while others may be assessing impact on symptoms, including quality of life.

That’s an important thing to remember when considering a clinical trial. It needs to be explored in relation to other treatment options at your disposal. Among the things to take into account is how the trial treatment will interact with your regular medicine. In some instances, you may be required to modify or halt some of your medications because of potential interactions with the experimental treatment.

It's also important to understand the level of commitment required by the study. You may have to spend extra time in the hospital and may have to get additional tests to track your progress. Do you have someone available to help you get to and from the clinical appointments? You also need to evaluate how the trial could affect your quality of life.

Often, patients considering a trial are beyond the help of additional chemotherapy. But that doesn’t mean you should feel obligated to join. Spend some time to make sure the decision is right for you.

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