Scientists look for new ways to treat advanced breast cancer in clinical trials. These studies test new drugs to see if they are safe and if they work. They often are a way for people to try new medicine that isn't available to everyone.
Your doctor can tell you if one of these trials might be a good fit for you.
Taking part can benefit you and other people. "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."
Access to Cutting-Edge Treatments
Some trials test new drugs before the FDA approves them. Researchers only test those 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 test drugs that haven't been used together before, or check on how well radiation or surgery treat advanced breast cancer.
Clinical trials are divided into phases. In phase I, scientists test a treatment on a small group of people to learn about the safety, dosing, and side effects of the treatment. A phase II trial includes more people as the researchers look at safety and how well the treatment works. In phase III, the study will compare the new treatment with the standard treatments for advanced breast cancer.
Special Attention From Health Care Professionals
Doctors, nurses, and researchers follow your health very closely during a clinical trial, says Sarat Chandarlapaty, MD, PhD, of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Often, you'll get extra support and information.
That may include a biopsy. You're probably familiar with these tests from when you were diagnosed with breast cancer. Doctors take a tiny sample of tissue from your tumor. They can sometimes use a very fine needle to do that. In other cases, you may need surgery for it.
"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."
What Else to Consider
You’ll want to know what exactly is involved, including potential risks, what treatments you might get, how long the trial will last, how often you’ll need appointments, what your other responsibilities might be, and what happens after the trial ends.
For instance, if the treatment helps, will you still be able to get it once the trial is over?
Trials will provide “informed consent,” which is what you need to know before you sign up. If you have questions, you should feel free to ask them.
When Distance Matters
Most trials take place at academic medical centers, often in cities. If you live several hours away, you may still be able to take part.
Community cancer clinics near you may be part of a large trial. Others only require that you visit a medical center a few times, Chandarlapaty says.
If you need to travel, the medical center may help pay your costs or give you free housing while you’re away from home. Cancer support groups may offer grants for travel expenses. But you’ll want to find out about all of that in advance. If a trial sounds promising but it’s not convenient, ask your doctor or the trial’s organizers for advice.
How to Learn More
Talk to your doctor, or visit the ClinicalTrials.gov web site. You can search for trials near you or those looking for people like you.