Clinical trials are research studies designed to improve our understanding of a health condition, as well as our ability to prevent, diagnose, and treat it.

When you have stage 4 lung cancer, a clinical trial can be a way to access the latest treatment options at little or no cost to you.

Some of these studies compare existing cancer treatments with new treatments. Others test out new doses, combinations of medications, or uses for existing prescription drugs. And some trials investigate entirely new drugs or treatments.

The purpose of these trials is to find ways to help people diagnosed with lung cancer live longer and better. In addition to testing new medications, studies investigate ways to relieve side effects from cancer and its treatments.

A clinical trial is how researchers learn:

  • whether a medication works against lung cancer
  • whether a medication is safe
  • whether a medication works better than the treatments that are currently available

You can enroll in one of these studies at any stage of lung cancer and at any time in your treatment.

Clinical trials include people with all stages of cancer. But these studies can be especially helpful for people diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, whose existing treatment options are limited.

Enrolling in one of these studies if you’re out of treatments has a lot of benefits. For example, you might find a treatment that shrinks your cancer when other therapies haven’t worked.

Yet there are some risks, too. You might get the standard treatment for stage 4 lung cancer instead of the new treatment. Many trials are blinded, meaning that neither the researchers nor you will know which treatment you’re getting.

The new treatment could also cause side effects. And there’s always a chance that it won’t work. It’s important to go over all the pros and cons of the study with your doctor and the person who enrolls you in the trial before you decide to join.

Some clinical trials focus on a particular type or stage of cancer. There are always ongoing studies investigating treatments for small cell lung cancer.

Some clinical trials for small cell lung cancer look at new treatment combinations, such as chemotherapy plus radiation. Others test experimental drugs that work in a completely new way from existing therapies.

The National Cancer Institute has a database of treatment clinical trials for small cell lung cancer. You can also find a list of these trials on the CenterWatch website.

Clinical trials are divided into four phases:

  • Phase 1 clinical trials. These include only a small group of people. Their purpose is to find out if the treatment is safe.
  • Phase 2 clinical trials. These studies are slightly larger. They’re designed to show whether the treatment works against lung cancer.
  • Phase 3 clinical trials. These include a large number of people. They compare the safety and effectiveness of the new treatment against current lung cancer treatments.
  • Phase 4 clinical trials. These are done after the treatment is approved, to answer any questions that remain about its safety or effectiveness.

Before you join a clinical trial, you’ll learn:

  • the benefits and risks of the treatment being studied
  • how it differs from the standard lung cancer treatment
  • what will be required of you if you participate

Ask a lot of questions before you enroll so you’ll know what to expect.

Many cancer centers offer clinical trial navigators to help you understand the types of studies that are currently open. Navigators can:

  • point you to a study that fits you
  • tell you whether you’re eligible to join
  • help you make important decisions about your participation

Once you find a study, you need to qualify for it. Clinical trials have certain eligibility criteria designed to keep everyone who participates safe.

For example, the study might exclude people with medical conditions like diabetes or heart disease because the drug being tested would be too dangerous for them.

Remember that you have the right to opt out of a trial at any time. You might decide not to continue if you experience side effects or if the medication doesn’t improve your cancer.

It is possible that the new treatment the clinical trial is testing won’t help you.

Remember that the study still has benefits. What the researchers learn from your participation could help many other people with your type of cancer in the future.

Some clinical trials are conducted at major cancer centers. But if you can’t travel because of the costs involved or your health status, you may be able to find a study closer to home. Your own cancer doctor might be involved in medical research.

The first step is to ask your doctor if they know of any clinical trials that could be a good match for you. Another option is to search for trials of your lung cancer type on one of these online databases:

If you do find a study through one of these websites, discuss it with the doctor who treats your cancer before you enroll.

Organizations like the Lazarex Cancer Foundation can also help you find a clinical trial that matches your diagnosis. Plus, they’ll help you pay for any costs that the study and your health insurance won’t cover.

A clinical trial can be a way for you to get access to a new lung cancer treatment before it’s available to the public. Although you can enroll in one of these studies at any stage, they can be especially useful in stage 4 if you’re out of other treatment options.

Ask your doctor if there’s a clinical trial available that fits your type and stage of lung cancer. Before you enroll, ask a lot of questions so that you know what to expect and how the study might help you.