Getting Treatment in a Clinical Trial

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2017

Watch the Cancer.Net Video: Cancer Clinical Trials as a Treatment Option, with Mary Lou Smith, JD, adapted from this content.

After a cancer diagnosis, patients and their families have to make a number of decisions about cancer treatment. These decisions are complicated by feelings of anxiety, unfamiliar words, statistics, and a sense of urgency. That is why it is important, unless the situation is urgent, to take time to research your options, ask questions, and talk with family or a trusted friend.

Decisions about cancer treatment are personal, and you need to feel comfortable with your choices. But many people don’t know where to start. Here Cancer.Net answers some commonly asked questions about joining a clinical trial. Cancer.Net provides oncologist-approved information from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). ASCO is the world’s leading professional organization representing oncology professionals who care for people with cancer. Learn more about Cancer.Net and ASCO.

What is a clinical trial?

A clinical trial is a research study that involve volunteers. These types of studies help doctors find better treatments for cancer and other diseases. Learn more about how clinical trials work.

Why would I want to be in a clinical trial?

You might want to be in a clinical trial for the following reasons:

  • To try a new treatment that is not available to everyone

  • Because the treatment offered in the clinical trial is a good choice for you

  • To prevent or manage side effects

  • To help improve cancer care for everyone

  • To help doctors get better at looking for cancer and finding it early

If you or your loved one has cancer, talk with your health care team about clinical trials. Every clinical trial is different. Some clinical trials need volunteers who have tried all the regular treatments. Others need volunteers who have tried some treatments, but not all.

Does being in a clinical trial mean there is no cure?

Some clinical trials need volunteers who have not tried certain treatments yet. Well-known treatments are still available, but the clinical trial might also help. So you might want to try the clinical trial treatment first.

Some clinical trials are for people whose regular treatments did not work. There is a chance that the treatment being researched might help. Or it might not. It is important to talk with your health care team about the possible benefits and risks for you.

The results of the clinical trial will give doctors valuable information on treating this type of cancer. It can help other patients in the future.

What do cancer clinical trials study?

Many cancer clinical trials are looking for a cure. This means safer, more effective ways of destroying cancer cells and keeping them from coming back. These ways can include:

  • A completely new drug, such as chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or immunotherapy

  • A new way of giving radiation therapy or doing surgery

  • A new combination of different treatments. For example, using a new drug plus surgery or a new combination of drugs.

In other clinical trials, doctors test different things. These could include:

  • A way to reduce side effects of treatment. For example, developing a new drug that help people feel less nauseous after chemotherapy.

  • Treatment for health problems that may occur after cancer or cancer treatment

  • A new way to find cancer or prevent it. For example, changes in eating habits or a new cancer screening test.

How do I decide whether to participate in a clinical trial?

First, you need to learn:

  • What clinical trials are available or “open” for people with your type of cancer

  • Which clinical trials might be right for you

  • The possible risks and benefits of being in the clinical trial

  • Any costs of being in the clinical trial, including what is covered by the clinical trial and your health insurance

You can ask your health care team or the clinical trial research team these questions.

Being in a clinical trial is your choice. You do not have to join a clinical trial, even if you think your regular doctor or another doctor might want you to. And you should not join any clinical trial until your questions are answered. You can also leave a clinical trial at any time.

Learn more about questions to ask about clinical trials.

Risks and benefits of clinical trials

Here are some ways being in a clinical trial can help:

  • You can try a new treatment that is not yet available to everyone.

  • The treatment available in the clinical trial might help treat the cancer.

  • You will get care from medical experts at leading hospitals and/or health centers during the clinical trial.

  • You will help improve cancer care for others in the future.

Here are some risks of being in a clinical trial:

  • The clinical trial treatment might cause side effects.

  • Being in a clinical trial takes time and effort. For example, you need to go to clinical trial appointments, and you might need additional medical tests or treatments.

  • If the treatment works, you might not be able to get it right away when the clinical trial ends.

  • The clinical trial treatment might not work well for you.

How safe are clinical trials?

Clinical trials are very safe. The U.S. government and other governments have strict rules to protect people in a clinical trial. All clinical trial doctors and staff must follow these rules.

Learn more about Patient Safety in Clinical Trials.

Will my health insurance pay for a clinical trial?

Under the U.S. Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, insurance companies have to pay for regular medical care in a clinical trial. Talk with the clinical trial research team about what your insurance covers. You might also need to call your insurance company. Also, keep in mind that some costs may be covered by the clinical trial.

Learn more with free videos

PRE-ACT, Preparatory Education About Clinical Trials

You can watch a free series of educational videos on Cancer.Net. The series is called Preparatory Education About Clinical Trials, or PRE-ACT.

To get a personalized selection of videos, you can answer questions about your own information and preferences. Or you can watch the entire series. You need to create an account to get personalized videos. If you have an account, you can also start and stop watching at any time.

Related Resources

More Information

U.S. National Institutes of Health:

ASCO Answers: Cancer Clinical TrialsDownload a free fact sheet on Cancer Clinical Trials (PDF).  This 1-page (front and back) fact sheet provides an introduction to cancer clinical trials, including a description what a clinical trial is, why clinical trials are important, patient safety, common concerns, words to know, and questions to ask the health care team and clinical trial staff. Order printed copies from the ASCO Store