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What Are Clinical Trials?

Updated December 17, 2014

After receiving a breast cancer diagnosis, a clinical trial, or research study, may be among your treatment options. Clinical trials give you the chance to possibly receive a new therapy or approach and see whether it is more effective and safe than the standard. It also gives you the chance to see whether it works as well as the standard but causes fewer side effects.

How Breast Cancer Research Has Changed

Years ago, most women received the same treatment. Little was known about the different types of breast cancer or about how the traits of each cancer might affect treatment results.

Today, research studies—also called clinical trials—have changed breast cancer treatment from a one-size-fits-all approach to a choice of more tailored therapies.

The advances we now rely on as treatment standards are available because they were found effective through clinical trials.

As science advances, more women from all racial and ethnic backgrounds, ages and communities are needed to take part in clinical trials. Such participation is the only way to speed research and to find new ways to treat and prevent breast cancer.

The Basics of Breast Cancer Clinical Trials

Clinical means anything related to seeing or treating people with an illness. A trial is a test. We use the words clinical trial, trial, research study and study to mean the same thing.

Breast cancer treatment clinical trials are designed to find out the effects of a:

  • new medicine, surgery or radiation treatment
  • new combination of existing medicines or therapies
  • treatment sequence (the order in which medicines are given)
  • dosing schedule
  • way that the dose is given (such as by mouth or injected)

Other research studies test ways to screen for breast cancer, manage symptoms, prevent recurrence (the cancer coming back), find genetic influences and improve quality of life.

Clinical trial researchers are scientists and doctors who treat women affected by breast cancer. The treatments they study go through years of early testing before being ruled safe for research in humans. Laws protect the safety of participants in trials.

You Will Always Get Treatment

The breast cancer trials that most people join compare a new medicine or combination of medicines to the currently recommended treatment for a certain type of breast cancer. The currently recommended treatment is sometimes called a “gold standard” or “standard of care.” All participants get at least that standard treatment. No one is ever given a placebo, an inactive substance or sugar pill, instead of appropriate treatments.

The new approaches being tested in a study might not be better than standard treatment. Safety and review boards monitor trials and will stop a study to avoid harm.

Read more about clinical trials and the providers who helped us write this page in our Guide to Understanding Breast Cancer Treatment Research Studies.