When you're diagnosed with cancer, information comes at you from all directions. There’s so much to learn about your disease and its treatment. Your doctor has recommendations. Friends and family will offer their two cents. An Internet search will bombard you with advice -- some of it better than others.
Your treatment options today are much broader than they would have been a few decades ago. Along with traditional choices like surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, you may be able to try cutting-edge techniques like immunotherapy, targeted therapy, or personalized medicine. Many of these focus on your specific cancer, so their effects are more precise.
But how do you find out about the latest, cutting-edge therapies? And where can you go to get them?
Choose the Right Doctor -- and Hospital
First, you need to find a doctor who can connect you with the latest treatments. There are 70 institutions, many at universities, known for their cutting-edge research.
Ideally you want to see a doctor who has several years of experience treating your type of cancer. One way to find an expert is to ask the one who diagnosed you to recommend a few specialists in your type of cancer. If you have a rare or late-stage cancer and live in a small town, you might need to travel to a center to find the right expert.
Often, cancer specialists work at hospitals that are part of the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Center Program. These nearly 70 institutions, many of which are located at universities, do cutting-edge research. They can give you access to both the latest treatments and clinical trials testing new treatments. Top-tier NCI centers are known as comprehensive cancer centers.
You can also find one of these centers through the Commission on Cancer (CoC). This program of the American College of Surgeons only accredits the leading cancer centers in the country.
Before you make an appointment, find out if the hospital accepts your insurance. If it doesn't, ask how much you'll have to pay out of pocket.
Discuss All Your Treatment Options
Next, learn all you can about your cancer. For example, if you read up on prostate cancer, you'll find that treatments include surgery, radiation, hormone therapy, and chemotherapy. Yet there are also newer therapies like a cancer vaccine, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, and high-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) for you and your doctor to consider.
Discuss each treatment with your doctor. Ask:
- How does this treatment work?
- What is its expected result?
- How effective might it be on my kind of cancer?
- What side effects can it cause?
- How is this better at treating my cancer than standard therapies like chemotherapy or radiation?
- Is the treatment offered at this hospital?
- Will my insurance cover the cost?
- What are my next steps if the treatment I choose doesn't work?
Enroll in a Clinical Trial
Sometimes people try every available treatment for their cancer until they run out of options. This is where a clinical trial comes in.
Clinical trials test out new cancer treatments to see if they're safe and effective. Enrolling in one of these studies can give you access to a therapy that could save your life but might not be available to the public yet.
Ask your doctor to recommend a clinical trial that's right for you. Or get a list of current trials from the National Cancer Institute or National Institutes of Health (NIH).
If you need help, a few organizations will work with you to find the right one for your cancer. The American Cancer Society and EmergingMed offer free clinical trial matching services.
Share Your Data
Today's lifesaving cancer treatments started out as research studies in hospital and university labs. Without research, there would be no breakthrough new therapies. And without data from cancer patients, there could be no research.
Researchers need access to patient information like medical histories, DNA samples, and lifestyle habits to study cancer. They get it from people like you.
The easiest way to share your data is through the doctor who treats your cancer. Or you can register with a new program from the NIH called All of Us. It plans to recruit 1 million volunteers to share details about their health and lifestyle habits and collect blood and urine samples. The information will go into a secured database that cancer researchers can access as they develop new treatments.
There are many reasons to donate your health information to researchers. It could help speed the pace of new cancer treatments. You might even benefit from a treatment the new research produces.