UNC Health Talk

Cancer Clinical Trials Don’t Have to Be a Last Resort

If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, your doctor might bring up clinical trials as an option to supplement your treatment plan. Clinical trials involve testing new drugs or devices in an effort to discover breakthrough treatments. In many cases, clinical trials give patients an opportunity to access new treatments before they are widely available and help future patients by contributing to medical research.

For Sharon Delaney McCloud, her doctor started talking to her about a clinical trial soon after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“First, I had to complete my treatment plan,” McCloud says. That included five months of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and seven weeks of radiation therapy.

Almost a year after her diagnosis, the former TV news anchor (who now helps run a Raleigh communications firm) enrolled in the PENELOPE-B clinical trial at UNC REX Cancer Care. It tests a drug called palbociclib to see if there’s success treating women who have McCloud’s type of breast cancer (ER-positive, HER2-negative) and who are considered to be at risk of relapse.

“Every time I go in for my clinical trial appointments, it makes me feel like I am actively fighting against my cancer.”

“I want to do everything I possibly can to keep my cancer from coming back,” McCloud says. “Every time I go in for my clinical trial appointments, it makes me feel like I am actively fighting against my cancer.”

Are you thinking about participating in a clinical trial? Here are some important things to know.

1. What are clinical trials?

Clinical trials involve testing new therapies or procedures to find new treatments for diseases such as cancer. Researchers often conduct tests in a laboratory on animals first. Once they see promising results, they conduct clinical trials in people. Whether it’s a vitamin, cancer drug, surgical procedure or medical device, researchers must test it on people to see if it will be successful.

Clinical trials are sponsored or funded by sources such as physicians, hospitals, foundations, pharmaceutical companies, advocacy groups, universities and government agencies. Ideas for clinical trials usually come from researchers.

Clinical trials are important to cancer patients, who may have exhausted all other forms of treatment yet still have active disease. These patients can find hope in new treatments offered only through clinical trials and satisfaction in knowing their participation may lead to safer, more effective treatments for future patients.

2. Once you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, it’s time to start thinking about clinical trial options.

Learning you have cancer can be overwhelming, says Lola Olajide, MD, a medical oncologist with UNC REX Cancer Care. There are many decisions to make regarding treatment, and it can be difficult in those circumstances to think about anything beyond that.

But Dr. Olajide says she would like patients “to be thinking about clinical trial options at the outset” of their cancer treatment.

For patients who are highly motivated and want to explore novel ways of treating cancer, clinical trials satisfy that urge, Dr. Olajide says. In addition, their participation in clinical trials helps advance and improve cancer care for others.

“For me personally, it has been extremely rewarding to offer patients this option,” says Dr. Olajide.

3. There are clinical trials for every type of cancer.

UNC Cancer Care and UNC REX Cancer Care collaborate on clinical trials and offer them for several types of cancers, including:

  • Abdominal cancers
  • Breast cancer
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Leukemia
  • Lung cancer
  • Lymphoma

4. Insurance covers clinical trials.

Patients in cancer clinical trials typically receive treatment that’s considered “standard of care” for their type of cancer, plus treatment that goes beyond standard of care—for example, a drug that’s not available outside of the trial.

Insurance typically pays for the “standard of care” part, but the patient never has to pay out of pocket for the part that goes beyond standard of care, says Carey Anders, MD, director of UNC Cancer Care’s breast cancer clinical trials program. The sponsor of a clinical trial—such as the drugmaker—typically pays for that part.

5. You can participate in more than one clinical trial.

Dr. Anders says at least one of her patients has taken part in three clinical trials. Each of these has given the patient access to treatment that was not available to her outside of the trial.

It’s perfectly OK for patients to participate in more than one clinical trial, but they must complete one trial before they will be eligible to enroll in another, Dr. Anders says. That’s because researchers need to see how a clinical trial treatment works by itself, so they can accurately evaluate if it’s effective. That’s not possible if a patient receives treatment from two clinical trials at the same time.

6. How can I enroll in cancer clinical trials?

Every clinical trial has eligibility requirements. Learn more about them:

Need a doctor? Find an oncologist near you.