Clinical Trials Are Best Option for Many Cancer Patients

Female physician reviewing chart with male patient.

Bob Sekerak didn’t expect to be surprised by the clinical trial he participated in two years ago. After talking in depth with his physician, Steven Ades, MD, and reading the consent form carefully, Sekerak, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2009, was fully up to speed on the protocols of the trial and the experimental medication at its heart. It was the quality of the care he received that he wasn’t ready for.

“It was all about me and my condition,” he says. “It was excellent care. The participation made me feel special, part of a team effort.”

Sekerak’s experience sheds light on a common misconception about clinical trials, says Randall Holcombe, MD, director of the University of Vermont Cancer Center.

Far from being left in the lurch and treated as guinea pigs, as some worry, patients in clinical trials receive double the care they normally would.

“When you're on a clinical trial, everything is prescribed according to a set schedule, based on the best expert input and evidence. You have a whole team of people, in addition to your regular health care team, following you,” Dr. Holcombe says.

More Effective, Less Toxic

Drs. Holcombe and Ades, director of the UVM Cancer Center’s Clinical Trials Office, are passionate about clearing up clinical trial misconceptions like this one. Why? Because clinical trials have so much to offer patients, they say.

“A well-designed clinical trial, like those at UVM Cancer Center, is almost universally the best option a person has for treating their cancer,” says Dr. Ades. “It’s an opportunity to receive a therapy that is potentially more effective and less toxic than the current standard of care.”

“I tell my patients that the treatment they're getting today was a clinical trial 10 years ago, and the clinical trial that they participate in today has the potential of setting a new standard of care 10 years from now,” says Dr. Holcombe.

Five Myths About Clinical Trials

MYTH #1: Patients frequently get placebos.
TRUTH: Placebos are very rarely used on clinical trials and every patient gets at least the standard of care.

MYTH #2: Patients who enroll in a clinical trial are locked in and won’t be able to change treatments.
TRUTH: Clinical trial participants can choose to stop participating at any time and return to their standard quality of care.

MYTH #3: Clinical trials are just for patients with advanced stages of disease when no other option is possible.
TRUTH: Clinical trials provide the very highest level of care for patients at all stages of disease.

MYTH #4: Patients in clinical trials are often treated like guinea pigs.
TRUTH: There are strict rules about how patients are consented and monitored. Patients’ safety and providing the highest quality of care are always top priorities.

MYTH #5: Clinical trials are dangerous because they use new medicines.
TRUTH: While there is some level of risk, clinical trial drugs go through rigorous testing for safety in humans, and patients are monitored closely for adverse effects.

The Placebo Myth

Obscuring this point is another misconception that Drs. Holcombe and Ades often confront: Many patients believe they’ll either be given an experimental new treatment or, via a placebo, no treatment at all.

“For cancer clinical trials, it's difficult to impossible to use a placebo because it's not ethical,” Dr. Ades says. “Placebos are rarely used in cancer trials and patients never receive less than the standard of care. You really can’t lose.”

A third myth is that the experimental medicines in clinical trials put patients at risk. But, say Drs. Holcombe and Ades, the new treatments have been rigorously vetted on multiple levels, both nationally, if the trial originates through the National Cancer Institute network of clinical trials—as the majority do—and locally by teams of UVM faculty and safety administrators. Trials sponsored by pharmaceutical companies and by UVM faculty also undergo rigorous review.

In addition, there are multiple levels of safety protocols built-in once the clinical trial has started. “Participants are monitored very closely,” Dr. Holcombe says.

As well as helping themselves, patients in clinical trials are helping researchers develop the therapies of the future. “If you look at the history of clinical research over the last 30 years, you'll find that about a third to half the time, clinical trials have moved the bar and established a new standard of care,” says Dr. Ades.

That thought resonates with Sekerak, whose cancer is stable. “If you participate in a clinical trial, you could benefit yourself. And there’s a strong possibility you’ll help others down the line.”     

For information about the 100+ clinical trials at UVM Cancer Center, see this link and consult with your doctor.

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