According to the National Cancer Institute, approximately 39 percent of men and women will be diagnosed with some type of cancer in their lifetime. Clinical trials are a way for people living with cancer to benefit from promising new treatments unavailable anywhere else. We recently spoke to Daniel Mirda, MD, a board-certified medical oncologist at St. Joseph Health Medical Group, about clinical trials and why patients should consider participating in them. Dr. Mirda is also President of the Association of Northern California Oncologists (ANCO), representing over 600 oncologists and hematologists in northern California at universities and in the community.
Q: What are the benefits of joining a clinical trial?
A: As a cancer patient, you've been through a lot. You've met with a lot of doctors, and you're determined to explore all your options. Taking part in a clinical trial should be one of those options you consider. By joining a clinical trial, you can obtain leading-edge treatment that is only available to people like you who are qualified and have chosen to participate. An expert team has worked long and hard to get the treatment to the trial stage, and they are only conducting the trial because the evidence shows that the treatment holds significant promise. The new treatment could work for you, yielding benefits that you wouldn't have otherwise had a chance to receive.
Q: Are clinical trials safe?
A: Your safety is a paramount concern before, after and at every stage of the trial. A clinical trial is always preceded by careful laboratory research before people are allowed to receive the treatment. The trial is conducted according to a rigorous protocol--a detailed set of steps or instructions--and your progress will be closely followed along the way. As with any medical treatment or procedure, there are potential risks involved, and the greatest possible care is taken to minimize them. We don't presume that a new treatment is automatically better than a standard treatment--that's what the study is designed to help find out. Sometimes that means the new treatment has a chance of unexpected side effects--before you begin, the physicians involved should advise you of all known side effects of the treatment and/or medication. A clinical trial is overseen by a medical ethics committee; and, even after the trial is over, there will be follow-up monitoring by the trial team to ensure your safety.
Q: Will I still be in the care of my primary health care provider?
A: Yes, the trial physicians will regularly communicate with your primary care physician throughout the trial. We work closely with your care team to understand your diagnosis and any potential interactions with your current treatment, to keep them informed of your progress, and to plan for possibly continuing the treatment after the trial is over, if that is an option.
Q: What does it mean that a trial participant must give “informed consent”?
A: Before deciding whether or not to participate in a clinical trial, you need to learn the key facts. We want to make sure you and your family understand the details. We meet with you to carefully explain the purpose of the clinical trial, how long it will last, what medications you will be taking, and the associated risks and benefits. Usually, being in a clinical trial means you'll have more doctor visits, more treatments, and more trips to the hospital during the trial period than you would if you weren't taking part. It's an opportunity for you to invest in your healing. You wouldn't invest your money before learning everything about the investment--in the same way, we want you to be fully informed and comfortable that you are making the right decision in joining a clinical trial.
Q: Can I leave the clinical trial before it is completed?
A: Yes. The informed consent document is not a binding contract. You can withdraw from the trial at any time. You don't have to tell us why, and we won't hold it against you; but, we always want to know what we can do better, and understanding your reasons for leaving is helpful in designing future trials and making progress in cancer research.
Q: What are the different types of clinical trials?
A: There are a number of different clinical trials, each one with a specific goal in mind. For example, treatment trials test new medications and drug combinations, new devices and new approaches to surgery or radiation therapy. Prevention trials focus on developing vaccines and better, more efficient ways of neutralizing disease through medicine, vitamins, minerals or lifestyle changes. Diagnostic trials help find better, perhaps less invasive, ways to diagnose a particular disease or condition. There are also screening trials, which help physicians find the best way to detect certain diseases or health conditions and quality of life trials, or supportive care, which investigate ways to improve comfort and quality of life for individuals suffering from chronic illness or pain.
When you join a cancer clinical trial, you're taking an active part in your healing, and you're adding to the body of knowledge that could help other cancer patients in the future. If you or someone you know might be interested in participating in one of the currently enrolling clinical trials at St. Joseph Health Medical Group, please contact us at (707) 521-3830 or talk to your doctor.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.