Deciding on a Cancer Clinical Trial? 4 Things to Ask

July 10, 2018
Shilpa Gupta, MD

Shilpa Gupta, MD, is an associate professor and lead for the Solid Tumor Phase 1 Program at University of Minnesota. She specializes in genitourinary cancers and has extensive experience with immunotherapy in her practice and as part of clinical trials. Follow Dr. Gupta on Twitter @shilpaonc.

What is a cancer clinical trial? 

Clinical trials are research studies that involve volunteers. They help doctors find better ways to treat cancer.share on twitter   Clinical trials also look for ways to improve quality of life for people with cancer. Through clinical trials, researchers determine the following:

  • Whether the new treatments are safe and effective

  • Whether new treatments work better than current treatments

Generally, a treatment is considered “better” if patients live longer and if the side effects do not force people to stop taking the treatment. The information collected during a clinical trial is required for a treatment to be approved as a standard treatment.

What are some of the benefits to participating in a clinical trial?

We have made great progress in treating several types of cancers recently due to the discoveries made in clinical trials. Some people with cancer are now living longer because of the progress made in those clinical trials.

When you take part in a clinical trial, you help the oncology community learn more about cancer, which can help improve cancer care for patients all around the world.share on twitter  You may also get access to a treatment that isn’t yet widely available, such as immunotherapy, targeted therapy, a combination of treatments, or new ways of doing current treatments, like surgery or radiation therapy. Joining a clinical trial is especially helpful if there are not any standard treatments for that stage of disease. Even though there is no guarantee that the new treatment will work, participating in a clinical trial offers hope.

Clinical trials are designed to be as safe as possible for patients. There are strict rules that clinical trials and their researchers must follow. People who participate in clinical trials must also be made aware of what the researchers expect to happen in the study. This process is called informed consent. Learn more about patient safety in clinical trials.  

Here are some further benefits to joining a clinical trial:

  • You get access to high-quality cancer care. Even if you aren’t getting the new treatment, you’ll still receive standard treatment, which is the best treatment currently approved for your cancer. A placebo, which is an inactive drug or treatment used in a clinical trial, is rarely used in cancer clinical trials.

  • You may receive more follow-up care in a clinical trial than if you receive standard therapy outside a clinical trial.

  • You may be among the first to benefit if the treatment works well in the clinical trial.

  • You help others, improving treatment options for future patients.

What are some of the possible risks of participating in a clinical trial?

  • The new treatment tested in a clinical trial may not be better than standard treatment. Or it may not work as well as the standard treatment.

  • New treatments may have side effects that doctors do not expect.

  • You may receive the standard treatment in the study and later learn that the new treatment works better.

  • Health insurance may not cover all patient care costs in a study.

What should I ask my doctor before participating in a clinical trial?

Here are some questions to ask as you consider participating in a cancer clinical trial:

  • What is the goal of this clinical trial? What is known about the new treatment and how it may be better than standard treatment?

  • How long will I be in the trial?

  • What tests and treatments are involved? What is the schedule that I’ll need to follow?

  • Is a placebo being used? If so, what does that mean?

  • What are possible side effects or risks of the new treatment?

  • What are possible benefits of the new treatment?

  • How will we know if the treatment is working?

  • Will I need to pay out of pocket for any treatment or tests? Will my insurance cover some costs? Will the clinical trial cover some costs?

  • Will my tissue and blood be collected and used in medical research?

  • How will my privacy be protected?

  • Will the study researchers work with my doctor while I am in the clinical trial?

  • May I stop participating in the clinical trial at any time?

Find more questions to ask about clinical trials.