An Important Conversation

May 27 3:12pm | Megan Roessler M. Ed. | @meganroessler

Article contributed by Cancer Education Program staff member, Jane Brandhagen

How is it that cancer treatment options have been able to change so significantly over the years? When you have a new diagnosis, that may not be the first question that comes to mind, but it definitely is important. It may become even more significant if you are asked about participating in a clinical trial.

Clinical trials are a major aspect of cancer research that have led to better ways to understand, prevent, diagnose and treat cancer. They can range from something as simple as allowing researchers access to your medical records, to more involved trials such as trialing new medications, or approaches to surgery. Much of what we know about cancer today is attributed to the research participation of volunteers in the past. Many of us have had an opportunity to provide this same kind of support for the future of healthcare, but when deciding whether to participate in a clinical trial, there are many aspects to consider.

By taking part in a clinical trial, you are taking an active role in decisions that could affect your cancer treatment.  You may ask "how will this clinical trial benefit me?" It's possible that you could gain access to cutting edge treatment that wouldn't otherwise be available. You might also get closer monitoring and support from cancer researchers who are experts in your disease. Often patients who undergo a clinical trial have a feeling of satisfaction that they may help save lives in the future.

Although involvement in a clinical trial could be beneficial, it's important to look at any risks and concerns. Is the new treatment known to be as effective and safe as what's currently provided? Because you'll be closely monitored, you may need to undergo more testing and scans. Will there be additional out-of-pocket expense?  What are the possible side effects and what would happen if you change your mind and opt for the "current standard treatment"? Because there is much to consider, most patients take this decision very seriously.

On a personal note, I was faced with the decision of participating in a research study due to a diagnosis of early stage breast cancer. I could choose 20 sessions of the standard photon radiation, or 3 days of brachytherapy radiation.

Brachytherapy involves radiation delivered directly to the tumor site via a surgically implanted device. Because brachytherapy was a newer approach to radiation, it did not yet have the same proven track record of photon radiation. The benefit of brachytherapy was that it was less likely to cause damage to surrounding healthy tissue and it was only 3 days of radiation, rather than 20. It didn't take me long to realize the benefits outweighed any drawbacks, and I agreed to be part of the study. As a result,  I received expedited radiation, but I was also committed to a temporary implanted device and 5 years of follow-up appointments.

Involvement in a clinical trial may not be for everyone, but for me there was a feeling of contributing to a greater good. The greater good being that knowledge gained will lead to higher cancer survival rates. Everyone is different and only you know how you feel. It's important to talk to your health care team about your concerns and questions. It may not be the first conversation you have, but it is an important one.

Connect with others talking about cancer treatments and clinical trials in the Cancer support group.

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