If you’ve had any experience with cancer—either yourself or through a family member or friend—you may have heard the term “clinical trial.” Let’s explore the ins and outs of cancer clinical trials.
What is a Clinical Trial?
Clinical trials are research studies that seek to find better ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer.
“Clinical trials are part of a long, careful process, which may take many years,” said Brenda Noggy, director of cancer research network operations at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Gilbert, Arizona.
First, doctors study a new treatment in the lab. Next, they may study the treatment in animals. If a new treatment shows promise, doctors then test the treatment in people, usually in three to four steps, or phases:
- Phase I trials test whether a new treatment is safe and look for the best way to administer the treatment.
- Phase II trials test if a specific type of cancer responds to the new treatment.
- Phase III trials test if a new treatment is better than a standard treatment.
- Phase IV trials find more information about long-term benefits and side effects.
“Most of the time, when you take part in a clinical trial, you will only be in a single phase of the study,” said Noggy. “Treatments move through the phases, but patients do not.”
Participating in a clinical trial: what to consider
A trial may be safe for one patient to join, but not safe for another. “Each protocol has strict rules, called eligibility criteria, that doctors must follow to decide who may join the clinical trial,” said Noggy. “This protects patients from getting treatment that may harm them.”
Eligibility criteria include information about you and your overall health, such as:
- Age and gender
- Results of medical tests
- Medicines you’re taking
- Other health problems you have
- Cancer type and stage
- Other treatments you may have had
- How long it has been since you were last treated
Benefits vs. risks
Each clinical trial has its own benefits and risks. Benefits to consider:
- If the new treatment works, you may be one of the first people to benefit.
- You may be able to help future cancer patients.
- The trial sponsor may pay for some of your medical care or tests.
- You’re receiving treatments designed by cancer experts.
Possible clinical trial risks to consider include:
- Side effects may be worse than those of the standard treatment.
- Side effects may occur that the doctor doesn’t expect.
- New treatments don’t always turn out to be better than, or as good as, standard treatment.
- The new treatment may not work for you even if it works for other patients.
You’re Ready to Participate in a Clinical Trial – What’s Next?
The first step is to go through a process called “informed consent,” according to Noggy. “The goal of informed consent is to make sure you understand the clinical trial’s plan,” said Noggy. “A trial doctor or research nurse will review the clinical trial’s purpose, plan, risks and benefits.”
This is a great time to ask questions, and Noggy recommends bringing a family member or friend to help you ask questions and write down the responses. Clinical trial questions you may want to ask:
- What is the treatment plan?
- What medical tests might I receive?
- How many patients are taking part in the clinical trial?
- What are the guidelines used to decide who may join the clinical trial?
- Is there any safety information I should know about?
When coping with a cancer diagnosis, it can feel overwhelming to build a treatment plan that is effective and right for you. We want you to feel comfortable and confident about your approach. Set up an appointment to see if you’re interested in one of the many clinical trials available at Banner MD Anderson.