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(BPT) - In 2012, Donna Fernandez was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer—a disease that claims the lives of more than 150,000 men and women in the United States each year. She went through multiple rounds of various medicines, but her disease progressed. Her doctor offered her a choice: start a new chemotherapy regimen or enroll in a clinical trial for a new type of treatment called immunotherapy.
At the time, Donna was not familiar with clinical trials or immunotherapy, but now, five years later, she is a passionate advocate for clinical trial participation and the power of immunotherapy and serves as an “ImmunoAdvocate” for the Cancer Research Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to funding lifesaving immunotherapy research and discovery.
The basics of cancer immunotherapy clinical trials
Cancer immunotherapy treatments harness and enhance the innate powers of the immune system to fight cancer. Immunotherapy is widely considered to be the most promising new cancer treatment approach since the development of the first chemotherapies in the 1940s. Currently, only six immunotherapies have been approved to treat cancer, but there are hundreds of new and promising cancer immunotherapy treatments in development—only available to clinical trial patients.
Clinical trials are research studies that enable scientists and physicians to assess new treatments. For people living with cancer, clinical trial participation may have the potential to extend and improve quality of life.
“Many patients don’t know where to start when it comes to clinical trials and don’t know if or when to discuss them with their physicians,” said Donna. “I was surprised to learn that only 3 percent to 6 percent of cancer patients who are eligible for clinical trials participate, which means that more than 90 percent of cancer patients may be missing out on potentially lifesaving new treatments.”
Navigating clinical trials to find the right one
“We aim to help patients kick-start the clinical trial process. With hundreds of immunotherapy clinical trials under way at any given time, understanding eligibility criteria is an important first step for patients when searching for an appropriate clinical trial for their unique set of circumstances,” said Dr. Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, chief executive officer and director of scientific affairs at the Cancer Research Institute. “Cancer immunotherapy clinical trials are critical to bring new treatments based on cutting-edge science to more patients with more types of cancer, and may represent the greatest hope for patients currently facing the disease.”
Matching patients with the right clinical trial can be a complicated process, which is why the Cancer Research Institute works to provide the Cancer Immunotherapy Clinical Trial Finder as a free resource to help patients and their caregivers quickly search for clinical trials that match a specific cancer diagnosis, stage, and treatment history. The Clinical Trial Finder has a brief questionnaire to help narrow the list of potential trials and patients are also able to speak confidentially with a Clinical Trial Navigator about the clinical trial process and even opt-in to receive updates as new trials are added.
Key questions to ask before enrolling in a clinical trial
Donna encourages all cancer patients to ask their physician about their eligibility for open cancer immunotherapy clinical trials for their type of cancer. It is important to ask about the short-term and long-term risks and benefits compared to standard treatment, as well as the clinical trial treatment protocol and site location, any potential impact on daily life, and ask about associated costs related to the trial, tests or treatments. In addition to providing this valuable information right at the start, physicians are also able to help patients identify resources that might be able to assist with certain barriers to participating in clinical trials—like costs and travel expenses.
“Today, cancer immunotherapy clinical trials have the potential to provide new hope to many patients facing the same situation that I was—a diagnosis that was previously considered incurable,” said Donna. “By participating in an immunotherapy clinical trial, I had the opportunity not only to access a lifesaving treatment, but also to help advance research to bring new immunotherapies to more patients in the future. I hope that more patients participate, gain access to revolutionary research and help uncover cures for all cancers through immunotherapy research.”
For more information on cancer immunotherapy and how to match with an open clinical trial, visit the Cancer Research Institute Cancer Immunotherapy Clinical Trial Finder at https://www.cancerresearch.org/patients/clinical-trials.