Clinical Trials for Cancer Treatment: A Beginner's Guide

Quick summary

When existing cancer treatment methods don't offer as much hope as you'd like, the next thing to think about may be a clinical trial. This can be the best way to get access to new treatment options that your parent's doctor may not be able to offer yet. However, joining a clinical trial comes with its own share of discomforts and risks. And depending on how the trial is structured, it can seem like a shot in the dark.

Nevertheless, it's a good idea to be informed about clinical trials. Here's how to start exploring the advantages and risks.

What's a clinical trial?

Drug companies, doctors, and medical researchers use clinical trials to test the effectiveness of new drugs, medical devices, and treatment methods. Clinical trials can also be used to compare different treatment methods and see which is more effective. Sometimes a drug or treatment that has already been tested and approved for one condition or group of patients is given an additional trial to see if it works for another condition or group. For example, a drug that works for prostate cancer might be tested to see if it also works for breast cancer.

Getting into a clinical trial is often the only way for your parent to try new drugs and treatment methods that haven't yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the branch of the government that screens new medications for safety. However, because drugs and treatments in trials are still experimental, there may be unknown safety risks.

Clinical trials are necessary to ensure that effective new treatments eventually find their way to patients -- the drugs and treatments currently available all went through clinical trials. The testing process for new drugs and treatments is rigorous, requiring multiple steps so that researchers have plenty of chances to spot side effects and monitor risks. Clinical trials are conducted in four separate phases to ensure safety.

What does it mean if the study is "blind"?

A blind study is one in which patients are randomly assigned into two groups, one of which receives the new drug or treatment being tested, while the other receives standard treatment. In some blind studies (though never in cancer studies), the new drug is compared to a placebo, which is an inactive pill that looks just like the drug being tested.

These clinical trials are called "blind" because patients don't know which group they're in. A double-blind study is one in which neither the participants nor the researchers know which group is receiving which treatment. Placebos aren't used when researching treatment for cancer or other serious diseases because they are never used in cases where not receiving treatment would endanger the participants in a trial.

To get in a clinical trial, will my parent have to change doctors?

That depends. In some cases, your parent's oncologist may recommend or support your parent's desire to join a clinical trial, and his doctor may be able to work closely with the team conducting the trial and continue to oversee your parent's treatment. In other cases, enrolling in a clinical trial may require that your parent go to another medical facility -- even one outside his area or out of state -- and accept the supervision of a new medical team.

Will my parent receive better care in a clinical trial?

That's quite possible, but it depends on the particular clinical trial, and also on the level of care your parent is receiving from his oncologist. Typically, participation in a clinical trial requires very close monitoring, so your parent will undergo lots of tests and receive attention from researchers who may be top specialists in their field.

On the other hand, researchers in a trial are naturally focused closely on the effects of the drug or method they're testing; they may not be as focused as your parent's oncologist would be on monitoring your parent's overall health and well-being, coordinating other treatments, and offering help in dealing with side effects and lifestyle issues.

Does participating in a clinical trial put my parent at risk?

Your parent is trying something new that hasn't been fully tested, so, yes, there are risks due to possible side effects, drug interactions, or other symptoms that the researchers don't know about yet. Of course, researchers want the drug or method to be safe and to protect patients from harm, so you can be sure they've got your parent's interest at heart. And if it's a phase III trial, which is most common, the treatment has already been tested in previous trials. Still, by entering a clinical trial, your parent clearly assumes additional risks that will be carefully explained to him.

Do we have to do anything special if my parent is in a clinical trial?

Clinical trials are conducted by a research team that usually includes doctors, nurses, social workers, dietitians, and other health professionals. The team will give your parent specific instructions to follow, which may include keeping logs or filling out questionnaires. Also, the research team may need to stay in contact with your parent after the trial ends.

Will my parent's insurance cover a clinical trial?

The answer isn't simple, and it depends on the type of insurance you have, the state you live in, and many other factors. Typically, the organization sponsoring the clinical trial covers what are considered the "research costs," which include everything associated with the running of the trial: data collection and management, the time spent by the research physician and nursing staff, and the tests performed as part of the trial. There is, however, a whole set of additional costs known as "patient care costs," which usually include transportation to and from the trial, as well as blood tests and other tests not directly related to the trial. The sponsoring organization often doesn't cover these.

There's good news, though: At the urging of the National Cancer Institute, a growing number of states have passed legislation requiring health plans to pay the cost of routine medical care that patients receive while participating in a clinical trial.

This doesn't mean, however, that your parent's insurance pays all the costs. Clinical trials often involve additional tests, medications, and medical appointments that don't fall into any of these categories. Some health insurers and managed care providers will decide if they'll cover patient care costs based on whether they consider the trial treatment to be "experimental" or "investigational" -- in which case they'll say no -- or "established" -- in which case they may cover it. Disputes often must be negotiated between the research sponsor and your parent's insurance company.

If your parent has Medicare, the program does reimburse patient care costs for its members who participate in a clinical trial to diagnose or treat cancer. Information about Medicare coverage of clinical trials is available at (click on the Search Tool called "Find Out What Medicare Covers" and, on the next screen, choose the coverage topics "Clinical Trials" for inpatients, outpatients, or both).

How do I find a clinical trial for my parent?

The first step in finding a clinical trial is to speak with your parent's doctor about what types of new treatments are being studied and what might work best for your parent. Let the doctor know that you'd like to consider joining a clinical trial, and discuss the possible approaches. There may be several options to consider, or there may be one specific treatment your parent's doctor recommends.

Surprisingly, though, many cancer patients and their families find that their oncologists aren't the best source of information about clinical trials. A national survey of cancer patients found that eight out of ten cancer patients were unaware of the existence of clinical trials, and that doctors reported being unable to help their patients enroll because they don't have the time, staff, or funding to keep up with the vast number of trials happening across the country. The best way to find out about clinical trials is to research them yourself. To do so, see Clinical Trials for Cancer Treatment: A Step-by-Step Guide.

Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine. See full bio