When faced with a cancer diagnosis, your doctor gives you a treatment plan. This can be the standard, established treatment for your diagnosis, or your doctor may recommend a clinical trial if the standard treatment is not likely to work well in your particular case.

More than a last resort

Participating in a clinical trial is a way to gain early access to an experimental therapy that may be more effective than the standard treatment. Trials may also provide an alternative for someone unable to undergo a recommended procedure, such as a transplant. Many people think of clinical trials as a last-resort option once standard treatments fail, and this is often the case. But there are many trials available for newly diagnosed or earlier stage disease.

While it may be challenging to sort through and identify appropriate trials, it is important to consider the option as part of the treatment plan. Fewer than 5 percent of adults with cancer currently participate in clinical trials. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Your doctor may be a good resource, and patient service organizations can help.

How patient services work

After a thorough understanding of the patient’s history and disease, these specialists prepare a very targeted list of clinical trials for the patient to review with their health care team. For example, say a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma patient returns for a second time, unsure if, at her age, she wants to have treatment again and deal with the frequent trips to the infusion clinic.

“Clinical trials are based on solid scientific evidence, but they are still considered experimental and unproven.”

The information specialist might find several studies of oral treatments. After reviewing with her doctor, this patient ends up enrolling in one of the trials, and she continues to respond well.

A clinical trial is a carefully controlled research study conducted by doctors to determine the safety and efficacy of an experimental treatment and to learn if the treatment increases survival and quality of life. Clinical trials are based on solid scientific evidence, but they are still considered experimental and unproven.

Deciding if it’s right for you

A treatment that is proven safe and effective in a clinical trial often goes on to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. New treatment protocols go through several phases of trials to determine the best combinations, dosages and duration of treatment. No placebos are used in cancer clinical trials.

You need to consider the specifics of your diagnosis, overall health status, ability to travel for treatment, insurance restrictions, support systems and your reasons for wanting to pursue a clinical trial. Whether you search online databases to identify appropriate trials or seek assistance, be sure to make a list of questions to ask your doctor about participating in a particular trial.