Why you should ask about cancer clinical trials

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

By Nicole Brudos Ferrara

Clinical trials, also known as clinical studies, help medical researchers understand how to diagnose, treat and prevent cancer and other diseases and conditions. Their findings often translate to treatments that can lead to longer, healthier lives for people with cancer.

“Treatment for breast cancer has improved significantly in the past few decades, and these improvements came from clinical trials,” says Saranya Chumsri, M.D., a medical oncologist with the Robert and Monica Jacoby Center for Breast Health at Mayo Clinic. “Clinical trials are an important way to learn about new treatments.”

If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with cancer, here’s what you should know about clinical trials:

What is a clinical trial?

Research studies that involve people are called clinical trials. Researchers design clinical trials to test new ways to find, diagnose, prevent and treat cancer, and to manage cancer symptoms and the side effects of cancer treatment.

People who volunteer to participate in clinical trials help researchers test:

  • New drugs or drug combinations.
  • New medical procedures.
  • New devices or surgical techniques.
  • New ways to use existing treatments.
  • Lifestyle and behavior changes.

Joining a clinical trial can provide access to experimental treatment options you might otherwise not have.

“That's one of the reasons I participate in trial studies,” says breast cancer survivor and clinical trial participant Sonya Goins. “I also have Crohn's disease. And I've participated in two drug trials, and those drugs are on the market now. To be able to have access to them before they become available to the public is a big win.”

Who should participate in a cancer clinical trial?

Cancer clinical trials are available for all stages of cancer. They are an important option to think about any time you or someone you love needs cancer treatment.

Minority groups are underrepresented in medical research. When people of diverse backgrounds participate in clinical trials, it helps promote health equity and reduce health disparities.

“It's critical that minorities participate in clinical research. Their participation helps us advance the field,” says Lauren Cornell, M.D., a Mayo Clinic general internist with the Center for Breast Health.

“We know that certain medications tend to work better in certain patient populations,” says Pooja Advani,  M.B.B.S., M.D., a medical oncologist with the Robert and Monica Jacoby Center for Breast Health. “We also know that certain medications are broken down in the body differently in different groups. When people of all diverse backgrounds participate in clinical trials, we can be certain that promising new drugs being tested work in people of all backgrounds, and not just in Caucasian patients.”

“Most of the risk calculators we use to estimate a woman's risk for breast cancer were derived from data on women of European ancestry,” says Dr. Cornell. “The more minority women we include in these studies, the better we can get at predicting risk.”

Dr. Advani recommends all people with cancer talk to their health care professionals about clinical trials. “I think it's important for patients to be considered for clinical trials no matter where they are in their cancer journey.”

If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, talk to your health care professional about clinical trials. This list of frequently asked questions can help.

Learn more

Learn more about cancer clinical trials and search for a clinical trial at Mayo Clinic.

Also read:

And watch this video: “The Clinical Trial Journey.”