Clinical trials are research studies that use patient volunteers to examine a new treatment, procedure, or sequence/frequency of treatment. Many people look for trials as a way of seeking out more successful treatment options.

But clinical trials aren’t available for everyone. Every trial has specific guidelines for who can join. These guidelines, or “eligibility criteria,” include your type of cancer, age, medical history, and current health. You can also be excluded from a clinical trial based on factors like the type of medications you’re taking and any previous treatments you’ve received.

If you do qualify for a clinical trial, you may not be given the new treatment being studied. Each participant is placed into a group, a process known as being “randomized.” A randomized clinical trial helps minimize the differences between each group. Neither you nor your oncologist can pick your group.

Once a randomized trial begins, one group receives the new treatment and the other group receives the standard treatment. The doctors involved with the trial then compare how each group’s cancer responds to their assigned treatment.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that the new treatment will be any better than the current treatment, so don’t be discouraged if you find out that you were placed in the standard treatment group.

The Risks and Benefits of Joining a Trial

There are many benefits to joining a clinical trial, like having access to a promising, new cancer therapy and helping other cancer patients.

Being part of a clinical trial also has its risks. Any drug or procedure can trigger unpleasant side effects. But because the new treatment being studied is unknown, it may be less predictable and carry greater risks.

Participating in a trial can also require extra doctor visits, lab tests, and imaging tests. The new treatment being studied also may not help your condition, so you may leave the study disappointed.

Finding the Best Trial

If you think you may want to participate in a clinical trial, there are a few different ways to find one best suited for you and your needs.  Your oncologist may be able to advise you regarding clinical trails available locally, or you may be able to find information on your own.

Clinical trial lists. Clinical trial lists provide descriptions of breast cancer studies including location, eligibility criteria, and information on how to contact the study’s sponsors. Many lists also allow you to sign up for email notifications whenever information on a new trial matching your criteria is posted.

Try starting your search online with The National Cancer Institute (NCI), CenterWatch, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Matching services. Several organizations offer online matching services to help patients find clinical trials. For most services, patients must register or enter some personal health information. You may have to include the stage of your cancer and any treatments you’ve had so far. The matching services then use your information to present results of any clinical trials that you may be eligible to enroll.

Matching services can save you time and are usually free. However,  the company may get paid a finder’s fee from the clinical trial if you enroll. Getting a finder’s fee may influence how the matching service ranks the clinical trials or how it presents the studies to you.

It may help to ask a few questions when choosing a matching service:

  • Is the matching service free to use?
  • What kind of personal information will I have to provide?
  • How does the service get its list of clinical trials?
  • Are the clinical trial matches listed in any particular order?

Some free matching services include the American Cancer Society Clinical Trials Matching Service, EmergingMed, and BreastCancerTrials.org.

Questions to Ask

Once you’ve found a trial you’re interested in joining, you may want to ask the doctors in charge of the trial a few questions to help finalize your decision:

  • Have there been in any earlier studies of this treatment? If so, what were the results?
  • What kinds of tests and procedures will I need to have in this study? How often will they be conducted?
  • Will any medical expenses be included with the trial? Will the trial or my health plan cover them?
  • How long is the trial? And how long will I be in the study?
  • How will you know if the treatment is working?
  • What happens after the study period ends?

With the Affordable Health Care Act, all new health plans must cover the routine costs of care for patients approved to take part in a clinical trial. This includes services like hospital visits, imaging or laboratory tests, and medications. If you have any questions about your coverage, ask your oncology team social worker or another one of your healthcare team members for help.