Cancer clinical trials

Diagnostic testing for cancer may include blood work, image scans and a biopsy. Treatment often involves chemotherapy, radiation and/or surgery. There are many standard options being used today, and they’ve been around for years. Doctors have a good understanding of the benefits and side effects of these approaches.

However, if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer or are undergoing the diagnostic process, you may have another option for care and treatment: entering a clinical trial.

Clinical trials are research studies that test and evaluate how new medical approaches work on patients. You may be interested in participating in a clinical trial, or perhaps your care team has recommended one. Understandably, you may have questions.

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This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on June 24, 2022.

What are clinical trials?

Researchers design and conduct clinical trials for various reasons. Generally speaking, the purpose of a cancer clinical trial is to find new ways to help patients by improving treatments and quality of life.

Before performing clinical trials on people, scientists research the effects of the treatment in a laboratory.

In a cancer clinical trial, researchers test new ways to:

Learn about the clinical trial program at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA).

How do clinical trials work?

Clinical trials are tests. That may sound scary—these treatments and procedures are unproven. However, researchers must follow rigorous procedures to ensure safety, and the federal government enforces these rules. Below are key steps involved before and during clinical trials.

  • An Institutional Review Board (IRB) consisting of doctors, scientists and laypeople (like you) must approve every clinical trial in the United States and make sure study participants don’t undergo unnecessary risks.
  • The Data and Safety Monitoring Committee also supervises many clinical trials. Members of this committee include experts on specific conditions being studied, and they monitor the progress of trials. If they find that an experimental treatment is hurting participants, they stop the trial immediately.
  • The patient must give informed consent to participate. Informed consent means researchers must communicate the reason for the study, possible benefits, the study’s design, other treatments that may be tried instead, what to expect and any known risks. Patients have the opportunity to ask questions. This part of the process keeps patients in the loop and allows them to weigh the trial’s pros and cons before committing.
  • Participants have the right to leave at any time for any reason.

If you choose to participate in a study, you must sign a consent form. Next, you may expect that:

  • You’ll answer questions. Researchers may ask about your medical history and likely conduct a physical examination.
  • You’ll undergo standard tests. Researchers may order blood work and imaging testing, such as a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, before you start the treatment.
  • You’ll have follow-up appointments and tests. You may continue to meet with your care team and undergo more tests to track progress. Your trial care team may want to know whether you’re experiencing side effects (or adverse events), including any unusual symptoms. Since clinical trials test new approaches, they may not know all of the potential side effects. Your answers may help them learn more about the treatment and protect you.

Explore the clinical trials available at CTCA®.

How to determine whether a clinical trial is right for you

People have various reasons for participating in clinical trials. It’s a common misconception that the only people who choose to join one are doing so because they don’t have other treatment options. That may be the case for some, but other benefits to participating in a clinical trial include:

  • Receiving a new treatment for a disease before it’s widely available
  • More frequent monitoring of your health by researchers and doctors
  • Helping to improve treatments for others in the future. For example, a breast cancer patient who knows the disease is hereditary may want to participate in a clinical trial to help future family members.

Though there are benefits to clinical trials, it’s important to consider possible risks, including:

  • There may be serious side effects, and treatment may be difficult to tolerate.
  • There’s a chance the treatment won’t work, or that standard treatment is better.
  • You may not get the treatment. Clinical trials typically involve a control group. If you’re in that group, you’ll either get the standard treatment or a placebo. However, cancer trials rarely involve a placebo, and researchers must inform you if the study uses a placebo.
  • The more frequent check-ups may be inconvenient or require long-distance travel.

How to find a clinical trial

There are a few ways to find a clinical trial, including:

  • Your care team may be able to share options and help you get involved. If your doctor isn’t comfortable recommending you for a clinical trial, but you’d like to participate, you may get a second opinion from another doctor.
  • Listings are available through website databases. The National Cancer Institute offers listings of domestic and international clinical trials, as does clinicaltrials.gov.
  • Advocacy groups and nonprofit organizations provide information about clinical trials and may know of those enrolling patients. Search their websites or contact them directly.

Questions to ask

Before joining a clinical trial, consider asking the following questions:

  • What is the purpose of this clinical trial?
  • Am I a good candidate for this clinical trial?
  • Why do you think this treatment is better than what’s currently available?
  • What are some reasons it may not be better?
  • What are the risks or potential side effects, and how do they compare with standard treatments?
  • How would you know whether the treatment is working?
  • Will I have to pay for the treatment, or will my insurance cover any of the costs?
  • Who pays if I’m injured during the trial?
  • How may this trial affect my daily life?
  • How long is the trial?
  • Who will be in charge of my care during the trial and communicate with me if I’m having issues such as side effects?
  • Where will my appointments take place?
  • When do you need to know whether or not I want to participate?
  • What happens if I leave the trial early?

How to prepare for a clinical trial

Before participating in a clinical trial, consider these steps:

  • Have details ready. Have the information on your cancer, such as type and stage, and your medical history ready to discuss with researchers. Compile a list of medications you’re currently taking and the dosage information.
  • Call the insurance company. Your plan may help offset costs.
  • Get directions. The trial may not take place at your local hospital or doctor, so be sure to ask for the address and directions.
  • Bring a pen and paper. It may be hard to remember all of the important information after an appointment. Have a place to write down answers to your questions, important instructions, and the name of your point of contact.

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