By Noah Goldman, MD
If you have been diagnosed with cancer, your doctor may recommend that you participate in a cancer clinical trial.
In general, clinical trials are designed to help find better ways to prevent, screen for, and diagnose and treat diseases — including cancer.
Clinical trials can have many benefits for you and future patients, and in some cases, they may be the only way you might be able to get a newer treatment.
Penn Medicine, Princeton Medical Center (PMC) works with teams at Abramson Cancer Center, a world leader in cancer research, to help patients access advanced cancer care, including clinical trials.
What are clinical trials?
Clinical trials are research studies involving patient volunteers. The studies are conducted to find safe and effective treatments for a variety of health conditions, including cancer.
In clinical trials, new treatments are compared to the current standard of care and are the final step in the process of developing new testing and treatments for cancer.
Every clinical trial has a protocol, or action plan, for conducting the trial. The plan describes what will be done in the study, how it will be conducted, and why each part of the study is necessary.
At PMC, clinical trials are approved, monitored, and reviewed by an Institutional Review Board (IRB), which comprises physicians, statisticians, and members of the community.
The role of the IRB is to make sure the study is ethical, to protect the rights and welfare of the participants, and to make sure the risks are reasonable when compared to the benefits.
What are the benefits and risks?
Clinical trials are critical to improving patient health and to the advancement of medicine.
Participating in clinical trials offers patients the opportunity to try new and effective treatments that could potentially improve their condition, while taking part in vital research that can benefit many future patients.
Clinical trials may involve risks. In many cases, it is not known how effective the treatment is or what side effects patients may have — which is what researchers are trying to determine in the trial.
A misconception people often have when it comes to cancer clinical trials, however, is that participants may be denied some aspect of care.
In fact, the opposite is true.
When participating in a clinical trial, patients receive the same standard of care as all patients with cancer should expect. They are not denied care, and sometimes they may receive additional tests or treatments as part of the trial.
Patients with cancer may be hesitant to sign up for a trial because they already have a lot on their plates when it comes to medical matters. But the truth is, for some patients participating may simply mean an extra scan or extra blood draw.
As the American Cancer Society notes, while people in clinical trials may have to have more clinic visits and lab tests than with standard treatment, most people in clinical trials like the extra attention they get from their cancer and research teams.
Are you a candidate?
Each trial has certain inclusion and exclusion guidelines, so patients may not quality for every available trial. In general, researchers will consider age, gender, the type and stage of cancer, treatment history, and other medical conditions.
Treating physicians usually recommend qualified patients for clinical trials, but it is also a good idea for patients to inquire about what is available. There can be any number of trials going on at a given time, so patients have ongoing opportunities to participate.
What questions should you ask?
If you are considering participating in a clinical trial, the American Cancer Society suggests asking the research doctor or nurse the following questions:
• Why is this study being done?
• How long would I be in the clinical trial?
• How often would I need to be seen?
• Where would I have to go for treatment and tests?
• Who would I call if I have any problems?
• Will I have to pay for anything?
• What are my other options?
Other types of questions you might want to ask to depend on the type of treatment you are being offered.
Most medical interventions used today are the result of past clinical trials. Volunteering for a clinical trial can lead to better ways to treat cancer and can have a significant impact on your care and care for future patients.
For more information on cancer clinical trials at Princeton Medical Center, call 609-853-6786 or visit princetonhcs.org/cancer.
Noah Goldman, MD, is board certified in gynecologic oncology and is the Medical Director of Cancer Programs at Penn Medicine Princeton Health.