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What are Cancer Clinical Trials?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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Cancer clinical trials are simply clinical studies that are designed to evaluate the effectiveness of a treatment or medication as used to prevent, screen, treat or improve quality of life in people who have cancer. There are numerous clinical cancer trials conducted at any given time, but all may not be equally useful, and many are tailored to a specific form of cancer. Moreover, people need to be aware of the phase of the trial, since that may suggest potential benefit to trial participation.

A brief description of phases is that there are four potential ones in cancer clinical trials. Phase one is highly experimental first use of medication or other therapy and is usually not a test to see if the treatment works. Medications or therapy can be delivered in very low amounts that would not completely address or treat cancer. Phase II does look at potential effectiveness and sides effects on a limited basis, typically at a single medical center or lab. Phase III is a much more widespread test after some effectiveness of treatment has been determined, and a phase IV trial may be used to search for other drug or treatment benefits.

What these phases would suggest is that people searching for cancer clinical trials as a potential cure or treatment, would probably want to avoid phase I trials. At minimum, phase II would be recommended, and phase III might be the most hopeful and the easiest to find. Fortunately, for many people, finding cancer clinical trials is not difficult and there are several resources available.

First, people with cancer may talk to their doctors, particularly their oncologists and radiologists to determine if the doctors are aware of any trials. When this is not the case, there are a plethora of online sites that help people search for trials, and the search can be specific as to cancer type, location of trials, types and phase of trials and others. The National Cancer Institute, a subsection of the US National Institutes of Health, offers one of the most reputable trial search clearinghouses in the US. There are other databases to search for trials too, and these are easy to locate.

One difficulty when finding cancer clinical trials is determining which ones offer the best chance at treatment. Participation in one may preclude participation in others, and sometimes with very treatable forms of cancer, it may not be a good idea to take part in any trial. After people have gathered a list of potential trials, they should take this material to a trusted physician. Having medical advice on the trials that seem most appropriate and more likely to be effective is strongly advised.

Another thing people must recall about cancer clinical trials is that they are experimental. They guarantee no results and are a testing of the potential hope that a treatment behaves in a certain manner. Many trials don’t guarantee people will receive treatment and could be conducted on a placebo basis, where half of the people tested don’t get the medicine or treatment. This doesn’t mean these tests can’t be of use, and they may be the only medical hope when people have certain forms of cancer that are not responding to present methods or are very aggressive.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

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Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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