What questions should you ask about new cancer treatments?

May 23, 2017 in Disease Management  •  By Miles Varn
new cancer treatments

There are a growing number of new cancer treatments—from immunotherapy and hormone therapy to new chemotherapy drugs and new approaches to surgery and radiation. Some of these new cancer treatments have dramatically improved the outcomes for certain types of patients. And although the new treatments do work well for some patients, you shouldn’t assume they’ll achieve that result for all patients.

In fact, one study found that the 72 new cancer treatments that were approved between 2002 and 2014 added only 2.1 months to patients’ lives. Other studies have found that 66% of the drugs approved to treat cancer in the last two years had no evidence that they extended patients’ survival at all. Another issue to consider is the fact that a separate study of cancer drugs that did not improve survival found that many had side effects, such as fatigue, diarrhea, sleep disturbances, and memory problems, that lowered the patients’ quality of life, in addition to being prohibitively expensive. Even when some drugs did improve survival rates in clinical trials, they did not do so for older, sicker people.

Before starting new cancer treatments, have an in-depth discussion with your doctor

Before starting a new cancer treatment, talk with your doctor about the risks and benefits of this treatment and whether it has the potential to be effective for you given your specific diagnosis and current health. Here are some of the key questions to ask:

  • What research has been performed to validate the effectiveness and safety of the treatment? Who performed the study, what were the researchers’ credentials, and where was the study undertaken?
  • Did the study compare the new treatment with the current standard treatment?
  • Was there more than one study performed? Was the same result achieved in each study?
  • What were the results of the studies, what was the measure of success (longer survival, reduced recurrence of the cancer, relief of symptoms, or some other measurement)?
  • How many people were included in the studies and how long were they followed after treatment was completed?
  • Were the people in the study in the same age range and health as you?
  • Were the studies published in a respected journal and peer-reviewed, which means the study methods and results were reviewed by other physicians or scientists?
  • Is the treatment approved by the FDA for treatment of your type of cancer or is it still in clinical trials?
  • What side effects may the treatment cause and were any of the side effects serious?
  • What advantages and risks does this new treatment offer compared to current, gold standard treatment approaches?
  • If I try this new treatment and it does not work, will I still be able to undergo other types of treatment?

When trying to decide which treatment approach to choose, a health advisor can be a helpful resource. An advisor can gather information about the research on the treatments you are considering, explain the information in plain English, and even attend doctor’s appointments with you to take notes and ask questions so you have the information you need to make an informed decision.