De-Mystifying Clinical Trials—Debunking Common Myths

Every advance in breast cancer care has been the result of a clinical trial. But only 3 to 5% of women with breast cancer elect to participate in trials. Breast cancer clinical trials help us to learn and improve our care.

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If we didn’t test new treatments, we would still be doing disfiguring Halstead Radical Mastectomies, which, fortunately, were shown in trials not to be better for patients’ outcomes than simple mastectomy or lumpectomy (partial mastectomy).

Most people are not aware that there are hundreds of clinical trials now underway that are helping researchers develop new methods for preventing, detecting, and treating breast cancer and improving cancer patients' quality of life. But that's really not too surprising. Breast cancer clinical trials aren't the kind of thing you typically think about until you have a cancer diagnosis. And they aren't always easy to find.

To be sure, a clinical trial is not right for everyone. But there is little doubt within the cancer community that everyone will benefit if patients considering trial participation become the norm rather than the exception.

Patients' fears about experimental treatments, placebos, unnecessary testing, and cost of care often keep them from even considering a trial, let alone enrolling in one. Many of these fears are unfounded. For example, patients often think that every trial includes a group who will receive a placebo. But in cancer trials, that's not the case. Instead, patients who are assigned to control groups almost always receive standard treatment.

Yet, because these fears and concerns are so strong and so common, they can actually slow down the pace of cancer research. Why? If researchers don't have breast cancer patients who are interested in enrolling in clinical trials, they can't study new treatments. And unless they have data from good studies, the Food and Drug Administration will not approve new cancer treatments.