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If you have advanced breast cancer, you may be thinking about joining a clinical trial. Patients often test new drugs or treatments in these careful studies.

Joining a trial can benefit you and the women who come after you. After all, we have today's treatments because other women took part in a clinical trial.

"It's very empowering for women, to help future generations of breast cancer patients," says Rita Nanda, MD, of the University of Chicago. "It's something that they can feel really good about."

Here's what you need to know:

Access to Cutting-Edge Treatments

Some trials test new drugs before they've been FDA-approved. Researchers only test drugs that show promise in the laboratory.

"Through a clinical trial, a patient may get access to a new medicine that could potentially be the next great drug," says Erica L. Mayer, MD, MPH, of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. "A woman can get the treatment of tomorrow today. But some will not work as well as we hope."

Other studies check for drug side effects and dosages.

Some combine two drugs that haven't been used together before. Others test how well radiation or surgery work in advanced breast cancer patients.

Special Attention From Health Care Professionals

Doctors, nurses, and researchers watch you very closely during a trial, says Sarat Chandarlapaty, MD, PhD, of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Often, you'll receive extra support and information.

Extra Appointments or Treatments

Each trial is different. Be sure you know what to expect before you sign up.

"A lot of studies are now including biopsies, which helps us learn a tremendous amount about how the drugs are working," says Elizabeth Mittendorf, MD, PhD, at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. "Most patients are willing to undergo these biopsies, but others are not."

How to Learn About Trials

Talk to your doctor, or visit the ClinicalTrials.gov web site. You can search for trials near you or trials looking for someone just like you.

When Distance Matters

Most trials take place at academic medical centers, usually located in cities. If you live several hours away, you may still be able to participate.

Community cancer clinics near you may be part of a large trial. Others only require that you visit a medical center a few times, says Chandarlapaty.

If you need to travel, the medical center may help pay your costs or give you free housing. Cancer support groups may offer grants for travel expenses. Ask your doctor for help.