How to Find a Cancer Treatment Trial: A 10-Step Guide

  • Resize font
  • Print
  • Email
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Pinterest

This guide will help you look for a cancer treatment clinical trial. It does not provide medical advice and should not be used in place of advice from your doctor or other members of your health care team. If you wish, your health care team and your loved ones can assist you in deciding whether or not a clinical trial is right for you. But, the decision to take part in a clinical trial is yours alone to make.

This guide takes you through the following steps:

Step 1: Understand Clinical Trials
Step 2: Talk With Your Doctor
Step 3: Complete the Checklist
Step 4: Find NCI-Supported Clinical Trials
Step 5: Other Lists of Trials
Step 6: Identify Potential Trials
Step 7: Contact the Trial Team
Step 8: Ask Questions
Step 9: Talk to Your Doctor
Step 10: Make an Appointment

A Word About Timing:

Some treatment trials will not accept people who have already been treated for their cancer. The researchers conducting these trials are hoping to find improved cancer treatments for people with newly diagnosed disease.

  • If you have just found out that you have cancer, the time to think about joining a trial is before you have any treatment. Talk with your doctor about how quickly you need to make a treatment decision.

Other treatment trials are looking for people who have already been treated for their cancer.

  • If you have already had cancer treatment and are looking for a new treatment option, there are still clinical trials for you to think about.

Step 1: Understand Clinical Trials

Clinical trials are research studies that involve people. They are the final step in a long process that begins with laboratory research and testing in animals. Many treatments used today are the result of past clinical trials.

If you would like to learn more about clinical trials, or review your understanding of them before going further, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) booklet Taking Part in Cancer Treatment Research Studies can help you understand what cancer clinical trials are, why they are important, and how they work.

Step 2: Talk With Your Doctor

When thinking about clinical trials, your best starting point is your doctor or another member of your health care team.

Usually, it is a doctor who may know about a clinical trial, or search for one, that could be a good option for you and your type of cancer. He or she can provide information and answer questions while you think about joining a clinical trial.

In some cases, your doctor may not be familiar with clinical trials. If so, you may want to get a second opinion about your treatment options, including taking part in a clinical trial.

Step 3: Complete the Checklist

If you decide to look for a clinical trial, you must know certain details about your cancer diagnosis. You will need to compare these details with the eligibility criteria of any trial that interests you. Eligibility criteria are the guidelines for who can and cannot take part in a certain clinical trial. They are also called entry criteria or enrollment criteria.

To help you know which trials you may be eligible to join, complete the Cancer Details Checklist (PDF—91KB) as much as possible. This form asks questions about your cancer and provides space to write down your answers. Keep the form with you during your search for a clinical trial.

To get the information you need for the form, ask your doctor, a nurse, or social worker at your doctor's office for help. Explain to them that you are interested in looking for a clinical trial and that you need these details before starting to look. They may be able to review your medical records and help you fill out the form. The more information you can find to complete the form, the easier it will be to find a clinical trial to fit your situation.

Step 4: Find NCI-Supported Clinical Trials 

Many web sites have lists of cancer clinical trials that are taking place in the U.S. Some trials are sponsored by non-profit organizations, including the U.S. federal government. Others are sponsored by for-profit groups, such as drug companies. Hospitals and academic medical centers also sponsor trials conducted by their own researchers. Because of the many types of sponsors, no single list of clinical trials is complete.

This website helps you find NCI-supported clinical trials that are taking place across the United States, Canada, and internationally. The list includes:

  • All NCI network trials, including trials supported through the:
    • National Clinical Trials Network (NCTN)
    • NCI Community Oncology Research Program (NCORP)
    • Experimental Therapeutics Clinical Trials Network (ETCTN)
  • Trials that are funded in full or in part by NCI, including trials taking place at NCI-designated cancer centers
  • Trials at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland

You can search for NCI trials yourself using NCI’s clinical trials search form. Refer to Help Finding NCI-supported Clinical Trials for more information about using the clinical trials search function.

Or, you can call, email, or chat with a trained information specialist at the NCI Contact Center. They will need to know details about your cancer, so have your Cancer Details Checklist (PDF—91KB) ready.

Step 5: Other Lists of Trials

In addition to NCI’s list of cancer clinical trials, you may want to check a few other trial lists. Why? Because:

  • They may include trials not found in NCI’s list.
  • You may prefer the way you can search those lists.

Other places to look for lists of cancer clinical trials include the web sites of:

  • U.S. National Library of Medicine's
  • Research organizations that conduct clinical trials
  • Drug and biotechnology companies
  • Clinical trial listing services
  • Cancer advocacy groups
  • World Health Organization International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (ICTRP)

Helpful Tip: Whichever web site you use to search for clinical trials, be sure to print a copy of the clinical trial summary for every trial that interests you.

A clinical trial summary should tell you what will be done in the trial, how, and why. It should also list the location(s) where the trial is taking place, so you will know where you need to travel to take part in the trial.

U.S. National Library of Medicine's

The National Library of Medicine is operated by the U.S. federal government. It manages a web site called, which lists clinical trials for cancer and many other diseases and conditions. It contains trials that are in NCI’s list of cancer trials as well as trials sponsored by pharmaceutical or biotech companies.

Research Organizations that Conduct Cancer Clinical Trials

Many cancer centers across the United States, including NCI-designated Cancer Centers, sponsor or take part in cancer clinical trials. The web sites of these centers usually have a list of the clinical trials taking place at their location. Some of the trials included in these lists may not be in NCI’s list.

Keep in mind that the amount of information about clinical trials on these web sites can vary. You may have to contact a cancer center’s clinical trials office to get more information about the trials that interest you. See a list of NCI-designated Cancer Centers.

Drug and Biotechnology Companies

Many companies provide lists of the clinical trials that they sponsor on their web sites. Sometimes, a company’s web site may refer you to the web site of another organization that helps the company find patients for its trials. The other organization may be paid fees for this service.

The web site of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) includes a list of its member companies, many of which sponsor cancer clinical trials. PhRMA is a trade organization that represents drug and biotechnology companies in the United States.

Clinical Trial Listing Services

Other organizations provide lists of clinical trials as a part of their business. These organizations generally do not sponsor or take part in clinical trials. Some of them may receive fees from drug or biotechnology company sponsors of trials for listing their trials or helping them find patients for their trials.

Keep the following points in mind:

  • The trial lists provided by these organizations often rely heavily on trial lists that are available at no cost from the U.S. federal government (NCI and
  • The web sites of these organizations may not be updated regularly.
  • The web sites of these organizations may require you to register to search for clinical trials or obtain trial contact information for trials that interest you.

The following list links to the web sites of several clinical trial listing services.

Cancer Advocacy Groups

Cancer advocacy groups work on behalf of people diagnosed with cancer and their loved ones. They provide education, support, financial assistance, and advocacy to help patients and families who are dealing with cancer, its treatment, and survivorship. These organizations recognize that clinical trials are important to improving cancer care. They work to educate and empower people to find information and obtain access to appropriate treatment.

Advocacy groups work hard to know about the latest advances in cancer research. They will sometimes have information about certain government-sponsored clinical trials, as well as some trials sponsored by cancer centers or drug and biotechnology companies.

To find trials, search the web sites of advocacy groups for specific types of cancer. Many of these web sites have lists of clinical trials or refer you to the web sites of organizations that match patients to trials. CancerActionNow, managed by the non-profit Marti Nelson Cancer Foundation, provides a partial list of cancer advocacy groups. Or, you can contact an advocacy group directly for assistance in finding clinical trials.

Step 6: Identify Potential Trials

At this point, you should have completed the Cancer Details Checklist (PDF—91KB), found one or more trials of interest to you, and printed out or saved a summary for each trial.

This section will help you to:

  • take a closer look at the trial summaries
  • narrow your list to include only those trials for which you would like to get more information

Key questions to ask about each trial:

Helpful Tip: Don’t worry if you cannot answer all of the questions below just yet. The idea is to narrow your list of trials, if possible. However, don't give up on trials you're not sure about. You may want to talk with your doctor or another health care team member during this process, especially if you find the trial summaries hard to understand.
  • Trial objective: What is the main purpose of the trial? Is it to cure your cancer? To slow its growth or spread? To lessen the severity of cancer symptoms or the side effects of treatment? To determine whether a new treatment is safe and well-tolerated? Read this information carefully to learn whether the trial's main objective matches your goals for treatment.
  • Eligibility criteria: Do the details of your cancer diagnosis and your current overall state of health match the trial’s entry criteria? This may tell you whether or not you can qualify for the trial. If you're not sure, keep the trial on your list for now.
  • Trial location: Is the location of the trial manageable for you? Some trials take place at more than one location. Look carefully at how often you will need to receive treatment during the course of the trial. Decide how far and how often you are willing to travel. You will also need to ask whether the sponsoring organization will pay for some or all of your travel costs.
  • Study length: How long will the trial run? Not all clinical trial summaries provide this information. If they do, consider the time involved and whether it will work for you and your family.

After considering these questions, if you are still interested in one or more of the clinical trials you have found, then you are ready for Step 7.

Step 7: Contact the Trial Team

There are many ways to contact the clinical trial team.

  • Contact the trial team directly. The clinical trial summary should include the phone number of a person or an office that you can contact for more information. You do not need to talk to the lead researcher (called the “protocol chair” or “principal investigator”) at this time, even if his or her name is given along with the telephone number. Instead, call the number and ask to speak with the “trial coordinator,” the “referral coordinator,” or the “protocol assistant.” This person can answer questions from patients and their doctors. It is also this person’s job to decide whether you are likely to be eligible to join the trial. (A final decision will probably not be made until you have had a visit with a doctor who is taking part in the trial.)
  • Ask your doctor or another health care team member to contact the trial team for you. Because the clinical trial coordinator will ask questions about your cancer diagnosis and your current general health, you may want to ask your doctor or someone else on your health care team to contact the clinical trial team for you.
  • The trial team may contact you. If you have used the web site of a clinical trial listing service and found a trial that interests you, you may have provided your name, phone number, and e-mail address so the clinical trial team can contact you directly.

You will need to refer to the Cancer Details Checklist (PDF—91KB) during this conversation, so keep it handy.

Step 8: Ask Questions

Whether you or someone from your health care team calls the clinical trial team, this is the time to get answers to questions that will help you decide whether or not to take part in this particular clinical trial.

It will be helpful if you can talk about your cancer and your current general health in a manner that is brief and to the point. Before you make the call, you may want to rehearse how you will present key information about your cancer diagnosis and general health with a family member or a friend. This will make you more comfortable when you are talking with the clinical trial team member, and it will help you answer his or her questions more smoothly. Remember to keep your Cancer Details Checklist (PDF—91KB) handy to help you answer some of the questions that may be asked.

Questions To Ask the Trial Coordinator

1. Is the trial still open?
On occasion, clinical trial listings will be out of date and will include trials that are no longer accepting new participants.

2. Am I eligible for this trial?
The trial team member will ask you many, if not all, of the questions listed on your Cancer Details Checklist (PDF—91KB). This is the time to confirm that you are a candidate for this trial. However, a final decision will likely not be made until you have had your first visit with a doctor who is taking part in the clinical trial (Step 10).

3. Why do researchers think the new treatment might be effective?
Results from previous research have indicated that the new treatment may be effective in people with your type of cancer. Ask about the previous research studies. Results from studies in humans are stronger than results from laboratory or animal studies.

4. What are the potential risks and benefits associated with the treatments I may receive in this trial?
Every treatment has risks, whether you receive the treatment as part of a clinical trial or from your doctor outside of a clinical trial. Be sure you understand the possible risks and side effects of each treatment you may receive as a participant in this trial. Also, ask for a detailed description of how the treatments you may receive could benefit you.

5. Who will watch over my care and safety?
Primary responsibility for the care and safety of people taking part in a cancer clinical trial rests with the clinical trial team. Also, clinical trials are governed by safety and ethical regulations set by the Federal government and the organization sponsoring and carrying out the trial. One of these groups is called the Institutional Review Board (IRB). The trial team will be able to give you more information. For more information, see Patient Safety in Clinical Trials.

6. Can I get a copy of the trial's protocol document?
A trial's protocol document is an action plan for the trial. It includes the reason(s) for doing the trial, the number of people that will be included, the eligibility criteria for participation, the treatments that will be given, the medical tests that will be done and how often, and what information will be collected. These documents are usually written in highly technical language and are often confidential. In some cases, however, the trial team may be allowed to release the protocol document to you.

7. Can I get a copy of the informed consent document?
Yes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) require that potential participants in a clinical trial receive detailed, understandable information about the trial. This process is known as "informed consent," and it must be in writing. It may be helpful to see a copy of this document before you make your final decision about joining the trial. See Informed Consent for more information.

8. Is there a chance that I will receive a placebo?
Placebos (sham or inactive treatments) are rarely used alone in cancer treatment trials. When they are used, they are most often given along with a standard (usual) treatment. In such cases, a trial will compare a standard treatment plus a new treatment with the same standard treatment plus a placebo. If a placebo is used alone, it's because no standard treatment exists. In this case, a trial will compare the effects of a new treatment with the effects of a placebo. Be sure you understand the treatments that are being used in any trial you are thinking of joining.

9. Is the trial randomized?
In a randomized clinical trial, participants are assigned by chance to different treatment groups or "arms" of the trial. Neither you nor your doctor can choose which arm you are in. All participants in an arm receive the same treatment. At the end of the trial, the results from the different treatment arms are compared. In a randomized trial, you may or may not receive the new treatment that is being tested. (See Randomization and Bias)

10. What is the dose and schedule of the treatments given in each arm of the trial?
Dose refers to the amount of treatment given, and schedule refers to when and how often treatment is given. You will want to think about this information when you are discussing your treatment options with your health care team. Is the treatment schedule manageable for you?

11. What costs will I or my health insurance plan have to pay?
In many cases, the research costs are paid by the organization sponsoring the trial. Research costs include the treatments being studied and any tests performed purely for research purposes. However, you or your insurance plan would be responsible for paying "routine patient care costs." These are the costs of medical care (for example, doctor visits, hospital stays, x-rays) that you would receive whether or not you were taking part in a clinical trial. Some insurance plans don't cover these costs once you join a trial. Check with your health plan to find out which costs it will and will not pay for. You may also wish to visit Paying for Clinical Trials

12. If I have to travel, who will pay for my travel and lodging?
Clinical trials rarely cover travel and lodging expenses. Usually, you will be responsible for these costs. However, you should still ask this question.

13. Will participation in this trial require more time (hours/days) than standard care? Will participation require a hospital stay?
Understanding how much time is involved and whether a hospital stay is required, compared to the usual treatment for your type of cancer, may influence your decision. This information will also be important if you decide to take part in the trial because it will help you in making plans.

14. How will participating in this trial affect my everyday life?
A diagnosis of cancer can disrupt the routine of your everyday life. Many people seek to keep their routine intact as they deal with their cancer and its treatment. This information will be useful in making plans and in determining whether you need any additional help at home.

Step 9: Talk to Your Doctor

To make a final decision, you will want to know the potential risks and benefits of all treatment options available to you. Through the research that you have done, you likely have a good idea about the possible risks and benefits of the treatment(s) in clinical trials that interest you. If you have any remaining questions or concerns, you should discuss them with your doctor. You should also ask your doctor about the risks and benefits of standard, or usual, treatment for your type of cancer. Then, you and your doctor can compare the risks and benefits of standard treatment with those of treatment in a clinical trial. You may decide that joining a trial is your best option, or you may decide not to join a trial. It’s your choice.

The Questions to Ask in Step 8 can give you ideas of questions to ask your doctor.

Step 10: Make an Appointment

If you decide to join a clinical trial for which you are eligible, schedule a visit with the trial team. Most likely, the same person you spoke with in Step 8.

  • Updated: June 4, 2015