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Would you consider participating in a clinical trial? You may not appreciate being asked this question when you have so many questions of your own about your cancer diagnosis and treatment. But this is a very important question. Participation in a clinical trial is more than being a part of discovering a new treatment or finding new uses, called indications, for an existing drug. It may be a treatment option for you to consider when discussing treatment plans with your oncologist. 

Clinical trials are used to gather information: on the safety and effectiveness of new treatments, or new indications for existing treatments. Some clinical trials are designed to confirm the results of previous studies or to continue monitoring a treatment. Clinical trials are defined by type (treatment, prevention, diagnostic, or screening) and by phase (I, II, III, IV). The type defines what clinicians will ultimately do with the information: treat, prevent, diagnose, or screen for cancer. The phase identifies what information researchers are focusing on: safety and most effective dose, the effect of treatment on the tumor, how well the treatment works, or gather additional information after the Food and Drug Administration has approved the treatment for use in the general population. Clinical trials are described at the top left, and phases are described on the next page of this section.

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Clinical trials may be sponsored by government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Other sponsors of clinical trials are research organizations that conduct clinical trials, and drug and biotechnology companies that are developing new treatments or conducting further tests on existing ones. 

You will undoubtedly have many questions when considering this option. In addition to NCI, organizations such as the American Cancer Society (ACS), CancerCare, and many individual cancer organizations offer information about clinical trials. The information ranges from general information about clinical trials to contact information for potential participants. 

This section is a general overview of clinical trials. It is designed to help you find answers to some of your questions and show you where additional information is available. Participation in a clinical trial is a very personal decision between you, your family, and your doctor. The editors of Oncology Nurse Advisor hope this information helps you make the best decision for you.


Not all clinical trials are to determine the safety and effectiveness of a drug or treatment. Some clinical trials are to find tests or methods of predicting who may develop cancer, how to prevent it, or how to improve the lives of those who have cancer. The purpose of each type of clinical trial is described here.

Treatment Used to test experimental treatments, new combinations of drugs, or new approaches to surgery or radiation therapy

Prevention Used to find better ways to prevent cancer in people who have never had it or to prevent cancer from recurring

Diagnostic Used to find better tests or procedures for diagnosing cancer

Screening Used to improve methods of detecting cancer

Quality of life Used to explore ways to improve the quality of life for persons with cancer