Inspiring Health
Transforming Care

What is a Cancer Trial?


A cancer clinical trial is a carefully designed experiment to test whether a new treatment is safe to use in humans and whether it is effective in treating cancer. We have made a lot of improvements in recent years in treating cancer, and they have all come about due to clinical trials.

We have reviewed our data and found that patients from a culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) background are less likely to take part in cancer clinical trials – this is similar across the world. We have produced this pamphlet to help you understand the importance of clinical trials and to make it simple to understand. If you have further questions, please discuss them with your medical oncologist who will be happy to talk to you about trials.

The phrase “cancer clinical trial” can sometimes bring to mind positive and negative feelings including fear, being a “guinea pig,” and drug companies. This pamphlet aims to address common concerns and hopes.

Cancer clinical trials are carefully conducted, step by step processes that test new treatments to see if they can better treat cancer. These treatments are all shown to work well in the lab, and clinical trials take the next step to see if they are safe and effective in people before they are approved for wider use. Each treatment is at a different stage of development so each trial has specific aims – some are designed to work out if the treatment is safe (Phase 1), others to work out if the treatment can treat cancer (Phase 2), and others work out if the treatment is better than existing treatment (Phase 3).

  • Our current cancer treatments have all been tested in this way, and have good success rates for many cancer patients.
  • They do not always work however, and may also have side effects that limit their use. This may have been your experience so far.
  • Trials are important because they may improve the way we treat cancer. New drugs may be better tolerated or new combinations may be more effective than our standard treatments.
  • Through a cancer clinical trial you can potentially access a new drug (or combination) which could help you live longer and better.
  • In all cases, your participation directly contributes to helping future patients with cancer.

Cancer clinical trials can

  • take up a lot of time
  • require additional blood tests or scans over what you would normally have
  • require more frequent visits (most trials will start off with fairly frequent visits but slowly decrease in frequency)
  • You may also experience side effects on a trial, and sometimes these can be serious– if this occurs, the doctors will treat the side effect and stop the trial if needed.

You would not need to pay for any of the tests or treatments in the trial but there may be other costs such as transport or parking which may not be covered by the trial team. If cost is an issue, you can talk to the trial team to see if these incidental costs can be covered.

No. Every cancer clinical trial is reviewed by an ethics committee made up of scientists, doctors and patients to ensure it is scientifically sound and ethical. In the vast majority of cases the drug (or combination) will have usually been tested on other people before you and the researchers will have some knowledge of the expected side effects. If you are the first or among the first people in the world to receive a new treatment, the doctor will carefully go through the risks and benefits with you before you decide to participate.

Ask your treating oncologist about whether there are any cancer clinical trials for you at the moment or in the future.

You can withdraw from a cancer clinical trial at any time for any reason, and this will have no impact on your care in the future. The trial doctor will be there to help you with any side effects or any problems you are having and if you have a specific complaint about the trial, there will be a specific person that you can contact. If you come off the trial, your research team will help coordinate your ongoing care.