Clinical Trials

A clinical trial is a research study that compares a new treatment against a standard treatment in a very organized and scientific way. The new treatment does not have to be a new drug 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 path 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 clinical trial proposal can be approved.

Factors to consider

  • Costs: For most clinical trials, there will not be any direct cost. Health insurance will pay for standard doctor visits and tests related to the cancer. Any extra medications, tests or visits are typically covered by the sponsor of the clinical trial.
  • Logistics: Even if it doesn’t directly cost anything to be part of the clinical trial, there may be some travel time and time away from work. Once someone is admitted to a clinical trial, the doctors would like him or her to stay through the entire trial, so everything must be taken into consideration before starting.
  • Purpose: 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 only on lessening treatment side effects. Not all clinical trials are designed to cure the cancer forever.
  • Eligibility: Clinical trials have very strict rules for patients to be allowed to join, so your loved one may or may not be eligible to take part.
  • Risks: When someone is in a clinical trial, he or she might receive treatments or therapies that have not been completely proven to be helpful. Even though all clinical trials in the U.S. need to be reviewed and approved by a number of committees before starting, there will be risks to every trial. Fortunately, there are many rules to help ensure that your loved one understands the risks and that the doctors limit the risks, including watching the results carefully.

Where to find a clinical trial

  • Primary cancer doctor: Your loved one can find a clinical trial by asking his or her cancer doctors. Usually, for head and neck cancers, clinical trials are done mainly at university hospitals. This is probably the best place to start if your loved one is interested in joining a clinical trial.
  • On the Web: You can find more information about a clinical trial yourself by going to the National Cancer Institute’s website. In this website, you can search for a clinical trial based on the location and/or type of cancer.

Another U.S. government website has the same list of clinical trials, but not all the trials on this list are related to cancer.

Clinical trials that are not sponsored by the National Cancer Institute may also be an option. You can find more information on 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.