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Clinical Trials

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A clinical trial is a research study that compares a new treatment regimen against a more standard treatment regimen in a very organized and scientific way. The new treatment regimen does not have to be a new medication or technology (though sometimes it is). In many cases, a clinical trial may compare different ways to give well-known treatments. For example, combining two chemotherapy drugs or changing the dosages and timing of radiation could find better ways to treat cancer without new medicines and technologies.

Because clinical trials involve real people with real cancer, there is a long pathway that leads up to approval of a clinical trial. A great deal of testing in the laboratory, plus protocol reviews, has to be done before a proposal for a clinical trial can be approved.

Factors to consider

  • Costs: For most clinical trials, there will not be any direct cost to you. Health insurance will pay for standard doctor visits and tests related to your condition. Any extra medications, tests or visits are typically covered by the sponsor of the clinical trial (but you should find this out beforehand).
  • Logistics: Even if it doesn’t directly cost you anything to be part of the clinical trial, you need to consider how it will impact you in terms of travel time and time away from work. You should see where the trial is being done, how long it will last and how frequently you need to have visits and tests. Neither you nor the doctors conducting the clinical trial want you to leave the trial early because of logistical reasons. Make sure you understand all the details before signing up.
  • Purpose: Not all clinical trials are designed to cure cancer. In some clinical trials, the best outcome might only be increasing survival by a few months. Perhaps a trial will not increase survival at all but instead focus solely on decreasing treatment side effects. You should ask your research team what the purpose of the trial is.
  • Eligibility: Clinical trials have very strict criteria for patients to be allowed to join. The clinical trial team will make sure you meet those criteria before you are approved to join.
  • Risks: When you are in a clinical trial, you might receive treatments or therapies that have not been proven to be helpful. Even though all clinical trials in the United States need to be reviewed and approved by a number of committees before starting, there will be risks to every trial. You should talk to your doctor about the risks as well as the benefits of participating in a clinical trial. Fortunately, there are many rules to help ensure that you understand the risks and that your doctors limit the risks, including ongoing monitoring of the results.

Where to find a clinical trial

  • Your doctor:  You can find a clinical trial by asking your cancer doctors. Usually, for head and neck cancers, clinical trials are done mainly at university hospitals (or academic medical centers). This is probably the best place to start if you are interested in joining a clinical trial. If your doctor does not know much about available clinical trials, you can certainly get a second opinion.

In many cases, particularly if you are at a high-volume cancer center, your doctors may tell you about different clinical trials and see if you are interested in joining.

  • On the web: You can also find a clinical trial yourself by going to the National Cancer Institute’s web site. In this website, you can search for a clinical trial based on the location and/or type of cancer that you have.

Another web site, clinicaltrials.gov, has the same list of clinical trials, but the user interface is a little different. Not all the trials on this list are related to cancer. You might prefer one website to another.

Clinical trials that are not sponsored by the National Cancer Institute may also be an option for you. You can find these by taking part in cancer advocacy groups or by looking on the websites of the major pharmaceutical companies, NCI-designated cancer centers or private websites that help you find a clinical trial. Some of these websites also include a partial list of NCI-sponsored trials as well. A few such websites include:

…and many others

Read the National Cancer Institute’s 10-Step Guide to Finding a Cancer Treatment Trial for more information.