Getting Treatment in a Clinical Trial

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 09/2019

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

After learning you have cancer, you will need to decide on treatment. At this time, you will probably have many different emotions. You may be sad, anxious, angry, or afraid. You may believe you need to decide quickly. Learning medical words and statistics can also make things complicated.

Unless your doctor tells you that you need treatment right away, it is important to spend some time deciding. Do research, think about what is most important to you, ask questions, and talk with family or trusted friends.

If your treatment options include a clinical trial, the information below answers some common questions.

What is a clinical trial?

A clinical trial is a research study that involves volunteers. These 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 many reasons:

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

  • To get a treatment that 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?

Not necessarily. You might join a clinical trial if regular treatments do not work. But some clinical trials need volunteers who have not tried all the regular treatments. You might join this type of clinical trial and try regular treatments later if you need to.

Some clinical trials are for people whose regular treatments did not work. The clinical trial treatment might help. Or it might not. It is important to talk with your doctor about the possible benefits and risks of each clinical trial you are thinking about.

Results from clinical trials give doctors valuable information on treating each type of cancer. Joining a clinical trial can help other people in the future.

What do cancer clinical trials study?

Many cancer clinical trials are looking for a better way to treat cancer. This means a safer, more effective way of destroying cancer cells and keeping them from coming back. This could be:

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

  • A new way of giving radiation therapy or doing surgery

  • A new combination of treatments, such as 2 drugs used together or a drug plus surgery.

Doctors test different things in other clinical trials. These could include:

  • Ways to reduce side effects of treatment, such as an anti-nausea medicine.

  • Treatments for health problems that can happen after cancer or treatment

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

How do I decide about joining a clinical trial?

First, you need to learn:

  • What clinical trials are available for your type of cancer.

  • Which clinical trials might be right for you.

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

  • What it costs, including what the clinical trial pays and what your health insurance pay.

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

Being in a clinical trial is your choice. You do not have to join one, even if a doctor wants you to. You should not join any clinical trial until the staff answer all your questions. 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.

  • You might benefit from the treatment.

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

  • You will make cancer care better 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 more appointments. You might also need additional medical tests or treatments.

  • You might not get the clinical trial treatment right away after the clinical trial ends, even if it works.

  • 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 research staff must follow these rules.

Learn more about patient safety in clinical trials.

Will my health insurance pay for a clinical trial?

Your insurance company must pay for your regular medical care in a clinical trial. This is the law under the U.S. Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. You might need to call your insurance company to learn more.

The clinical trial itself may pay some of the costs. The clinical trial staff should be able to tell you.

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.

For a personalized video series, answer questions about your own situation and create an account. You may also watch the whole series. With your account, you can start and stop watching any time.

Related Resources

Finding a Clinical Trial

Cancer Clinical Trials Are For All Patients: Latest Research from the 2019 Quality Care Symposium

Making Decisions About Cancer Treatment

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.