Cancer Clinical Trials: Getting Beyond the Myths

June 22, 2016

Thirty years ago if you had asked people facing cancer what they thought about participating in a clinical trial, you would probably have heard responses like this. “I am worried about being a guinea pig or a lab rat.” “I don’t want to take the chance of getting a placebo.” “I don’t think there is any real benefit for me.” Or, “I don’t trust the medical profession.”

Since that time, there has been steady (and in some cases amazing) progress in improving the outcomes of treatment for many cancers.  Every step of that progress is the result of cancer clinical trials. Designed to make sure new therapies are safe and effective, clinical trials are the engine that drive cancer progress. Patients who join these trials have access to the newest therapies and excellent care. By joining a clinical trial, they give themselves hope for longer and better lives.  They also contribute to better cancer treatment for others facing cancer.

Yet, today, if you asked cancer patients what they think about clinical trials, you are likely to hear many of the same concerns that were raised decades ago. The low percentage of people who actually enroll in trials is due, in part, to these myths and misconceptions. Here’s the reality:

  • Participating in a clinical trial doesn’t mean you are a guinea pig. The safety and health of patients in clinical trials is carefully monitored and protected.
  • Patients on cancer clinical trials rarely get placebos (sugar pills). New therapies are always compared to the standard of care--the best, established treatment for any type of cancer. It is rare in cancer trials for there to be no standard treatment and have to compare the new treatment to a placebo.
  • Clinical trials are research studies. That means the outcomes are not known in advance. There is no guarantee that any individual will benefit from a trial. BUT, every drug or agent that reaches a clinical trial has already been thoroughly tested and shown to have significant promise. In many cases, trials are the only way to get the newest cancer treatments.
  • It is true, that in the past, there are examples of shameful experiments that were conducted with African Americans and other groups. Things are different today. There are more safeguards in place. The goal today is to make sure that everyone has access to the highest quality of cancer treatment. That includes clinical trials.

Right now, we are in an era of remarkable progress in understanding why and how cancers start and grow.  Researchers are developing many new ways to treat cancers. In the last 10 years, targeted therapies and immunotherapy have opened the doors to real hope for longer, better lives--even cures--for people whose cancers could not be treated successfully.

How will it continue to happen? The answer is by having more patients participate in clinical trials.


The Cancer Support Community is launching a new Frankly Speaking about Cancer Clinical Trials program to help make this possible. To learn more, go to