Clinical trials are research studies in which people agree to try new therapies (under careful supervision) in order to help doctors identify the best treatments with the fewest side effects. These studies help improve the overall standard of care.
According to the American Cancer Society, a shortage of people taking part in clinical trials is the biggest reason trials aren’t done. It’s estimated that fewer than 5% of adults diagnosed with cancer will take part in a clinical trial. Why? One factor is that information about current trials and how to enroll in a trial are often not well understood.
In October 2014, the Metastatic Breast Cancer Alliance released an extensive report covering the current state of research, quality of life in patients, available information and support services, metastatic breast cancer incidence and survival rates, and public awareness. According to their findings, women with metastatic breast cancer often do want to enroll in clinical trials so that they can try new treatments that might extend their lives. However, these women also say they are not often told about clinical trials for new treatments, especially if the trials are being done outside of their hospital. Those who do participate often say that they were motivated by their doctors to enroll.
Clinical trials are an important step in discovering new treatments for breast cancer and other diseases as well as new ways to detect, diagnose, and reduce the risk of disease. Clinical trials show researchers what does and doesn’t work in people. Clinical trials also help researchers and doctors decide if the side effects of a new treatment are acceptable when weighed against the benefits offered by the new treatment. All treatments for breast cancer — including targeted therapies, aromatase inhibitors, tamoxifen, radiation, and more — were studied in several clinical trials.
The uncertainty of not knowing how a clinical trial will turn out can make it hard to decide whether you want to participate. In rare cases, clinical trial volunteers have been hurt by the treatment or procedure being tested. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of people have been helped and are alive because other people chose to participate in a trial that resulted in a new, more effective treatment. While clinical trials are important, the choice to participate in one is very personal and depends on your unique situation. As with any breast cancer treatment, you and your doctor need to weigh the benefits against the risks and decide what’s best for you.
Clinical trials are just one type of research that’s done before a new treatment becomes available to people. New medicines must first be discovered, purified, and tested in preclinical trials before researchers even think about clinical trials. According to the American Cancer Society, about 1,000 potential medicines are tested before one makes it to clinical trials. On average, a new medicine to treat breast cancer has been studied for at least 6 years (and sometimes many more) before researchers begin to test it in a clinical trial.
You can use a new search engine to look for metastatic breast cancer trials that might be right for you. Visit Metastatic Trial Search from BreastCancerTrials.org.
If you aren’t eligible for a clinical trial, you may be able to access an experimental drug through the Expanded Access or Right to Try pathways. Breastcancer.org has information here.