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New Directions

Issue: Fall

Clinical Trials Bring Major Breakthroughs in Breast Cancer: Opportunities to participate are available at Suburban Hospital

Carolyn Hendricks, M.D.
As members of Johns Hopkins Medicine, Suburban and Sibley Hospitals are offering breast cancer patients greater access to clinical trials than ever before. Clinical trials are research studies led by scientists and physicians working together with human volunteers to test new drugs and treatments for breast cancer, as well as other diseases.

We asked prominent Bethesda medical oncologist Carolyn Hendricks, M.D., to answer questions about the importance of patient participation in clinical trials in the search for a cure for breast cancer.

Q: Why do you encourage your patients to participate in clinical trials?

A: I believe that the best treatment a patient can receive is in the context of a clinical trial. If more patients would participate, we could learn a lot more about breast cancer in a shorter period of time. Unfortunately, in the U.S. only a small percentage of breast cancer patients are offered the opportunity to participate in clinical trials and too few choose to enroll. Meanwhile, one in eight women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer during her lifetime.

Q: What do you gain from participation in clinical trials?

A: Patients gain a lot! There have been huge breakthroughs in treatment for women with breast cancer just in the last couple of years, thanks to research studies. We have to keep going until we find a cure. Physicians learn important information about breast cancer from every trial, whether the results are positive or negative.

Q: Who should a patient talk with about clinical trials?

A: Breast cancer patients should review the design and intent of a clinical trial with their medical oncologist who can explain how participation compares to standard treatment. Once the decision to participate is reached, research nurses involved specifically in enrolling patients in research trials provide more in-depth information and education about the trial, and coordinate any required testing to determine eligibility.

Q: How do you match a clinical trial to a patient?

A: Each clinical trial has an eligibility criteria list. Before I meet with the patient, I review the studies and provide the patient with several options from which to choose. Evidence indicates that there are some strong physician biases about offering clinical trials to patients in certain groups, for example, women over 70 or women with low literacy. It is good to be aware of this and to discuss a variety of options.

Q: How do you know a research trial will be safe?

A: First, physicians who participate in clinical trials as investigators must be trained in human subject research. The safety of the design of the clinical trial is ensured by an Institutional Review Board (IRB) that thoroughly evaluates new clinical trials and approves them before patients can enroll. All of the clinical trials offered to patients by Suburban and Sibley Hospitals are evaluated by the Johns Hopkins Medicine Institutional Review Board.

Q: Where can patients learn more about clinical trials?

A: The best resource for learning about clinical trials is at the National Cancer Institute’s Web site cancer.gov. Suburban Hospital’s Web site has a current listing of clinical trials available at suburbanhospital.org/breastcenter and to learn what clinical trials are available at Sibley Hospital, visit sibley.org/clinicaltrials.

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