Confronting the odds: cancer clinical trials

Clinical Trials Day
Presenting at Clinical Trials Day, from left: Study Coordinators from the Cancer Research Program Inna Zhylina and Kriti Arora, with Maryyam Azam, Clinical Research Coordinator at the Lady Davis Institute.

Nearly one in two Canadians will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. According to Statistics Canada, of those diagnosed, one in four will die, making it the leading cause of death in the country.

Clinical trials are a gateway to accelerating improvements in cancer care and to changing these statistics over time. The odds for success of clinical trials rise as more cancer patients participate in them.

Throughout Quebec, hundreds of clinical trials in oncology are underway at any given time for many types of cancer, such as neurological, hematological, breast or lung. Trials test a variety of elements in cancer care, including new drug candidates, new drug combinations, alternate treatment techniques or patient management approaches.

The Quebec Clinical Research Organization in Cancer (Q-CROC) raised awareness on the importance of clinical trials. Patients and visitors at the Jewish General Hospital (JGH) Segal Cancer Centre learned how clinical trials work and why participation is crucial.

“We want to inform cancer patients about options other than chemotherapy or what has already been approved by Health Canada,” says Maryyam Azam, a Clinical Research Coordinator at the Lady Davis Institute who took part in Clinical Trials Day. “Specifically for patients with rare diseases, advanced cancer, or undergoing treatments that are no longer working, clinical trials can be an option.”

Q-CROC is a not-for-profit organization that brings together more than a dozen healthcare centres across the province, including CIUSSS West-Central Montreal, to form a clinical research network in oncology. Part of their mandate is to provide patients with information on clinical trials taking place within its affiliated healthcare centres.

“I think people should really consider participating in a clinical trial. It’s something that may work or prolong your life,” contends Zehra Aslan, who took part in a clinical trial at the Segal Cancer Centre, following her doctor’s recommendation. Immunotherapy had proved ineffective for her.

“I got a lot of help and support,” she said. “You don’t feel like a guinea pig.”

However, it is not uncommon for patients to back away from clinical trials precisely out of this very fear of feeling like an experiment. Ms. Azam emphasized that trials give patients an opportunity to be very closely monitored. They can also decide to opt out at any time. At the JGH, more than 10 per cent of patients have been recruited into clinical trials.

“Health Canada requires rigorous testing of these promising agents and drugs,” Ms. Azam said. “To see if they work, we need patients. If we don’t have patients, we can’t get them on the market.”

“If we want to help the future generations, this is the best we can do,” adds Ms. Aslan.

Q-CROC hosted kiosks at other hospitals in the province for Clinical Trials Day, including the Montreal Children’s Hospital and the CHU Sainte-Justine. Next year, the Segal Cancer Centre plans to participate again, to continue shedding light on the importance of clinical trials.

“Our main message is that we’re here,” says Ms. Azam. “If your treatment is not working, we want to make you aware that these trials exist.”

Cancer patients who are interested in learning more about clinical trials may speak directly to their doctor about their eligibility and options, or consult