As a doctor who talks to patients living with cancer every day, I am often asked about clinical trials, including what happens during a trial and if a patient should consider participating in one.

Clinical trials are extremely important in making progress for cancer patients. Some clinical trials try to determine if a new type of therapy is both safe and effective. Many large clinical trials compare a standard treatment with a more novel treatment that cancer experts think could possibly lead to changes in how patients will be treated in the future.

Discovering new treatments

Patients today have benefited from the thousands of courageous individuals who participated in past clinical trials to help make progress in advanced treatment options. In fact, most standard cancer treatments are based on the results of previous clinical trials. For example, trials in the 1970s compared outcomes for patients who received a mastectomy to those who received a lumpectomy with radiation for their early-stage breast cancer. The results showed the less invasive lumpectomy and radiation approach was equivalent to mastectomy. This trial dramatically changed the standard of care today.

Patients who join clinical trials make a valuable contribution to science and help improve the lives of future cancer patients.

There are several reasons why a cancer patient might consider joining a clinical trial. These studies offer the most effective treatments available, including the current standard of care. In some cases, a new therapy may only be available through a clinical trial. If your doctor advises looking into a certain trial, she or he likely considers the unique characteristics of your cancer to be a good fit.

Upcoming advancements

Ongoing clinical trials are testing new and powerful ways to combine different types of cancer treatments, similar to the example of combining radiation with surgery for early-stage breast cancer. One approach that is generating significant excitement in the research world is the use of radiation therapy to boost the impact of immunotherapy drugs. Radiation has been shown to make immunotherapies more effective, but more clinical trials are necessary for doctors and scientists to better understand how this interaction occurs and design the best approaches to combine these treatments.

Clinical trials are available everywhere — not just in major cities, university centers or large hospitals. Most cancer centers and doctors who treat cancer patients can guide their patients to a trial that could fit their situation. In addition, patients frequently find support from networks of cancer patients who have been through trials themselves and can provide helpful first-hand knowledge and advice.

Patients who join clinical trials make a valuable contribution to science and help improve the lives of future cancer patients. Talk to your doctor if you are looking for available clinical trials to treat your cancer.