When I first learned of my diagnosis, it was essential to my husband and me that we consider a cancer center that would offer cutting-edge research and clinical trials. We wanted to make sure that I would have every treatment option available. That’s why I am also a patient at Memorial Sloan Kettering. At my first meeting with my oncologist there, we discussed clinical trials. I had even asked if there was one I could get into immediately. That’s how important I felt they were. Now, I’m not as confident as I was then.
While I didn’t know a lot about cancer research, I knew that research would be my only hope to keep on living. I counted on whatever clinicians were currently working on would be FDA approved and for my specific pathology before I exhausted my options. In the beginning, doctors told me I might have 2-3 yrs with the current standard of treatment. I wanted longer – a lot longer. I wasn’t going to accept what was “my fate,” and I became a vocal advocate for metastatic research. I was disgusted with how little money was going to metastatic breast cancer research. Large non-profits known for bringing awareness to breast cancer were mainly focused on preventing and treating early-stage disease. That’s great, but where does that leave me and others like me? It left us forgotten and ignored. We were the misfit toys on the island far out at sea.
After all, we are dying, and research typically moves at a snail’s pace. Doctors were treating us and keeping us as comfortable as possible. Another organization bluntly stated that metastatic breast cancer is just too complicated for research to focus on. Prevention was the key to save future generations, and we should accept that because it was too late for us. Whelp, the joke is on them. Shortly after my diagnosis, in 2014/2015, the first CDK4/6 inhibitor was on the market. Ibrance was the game-changer for estrogen-driven breast cancer. Maybe research wasn’t as slow as I thought. Little did I know.
There Is A Process
Over the last eight years, I have had extensive education in all things MBC. If one wants to create change, one must learn all about what needs to be changed. What I learned was disturbing. Clinical trials are a complicated process. There are four main phases each new drug must go through before getting acceptance from the FDA. Here is the cliff notes version for those that aren’t familiar with them.
Phase 1 is for figuring out what dosage is enough without being toxic and whether or not the drug effectively treats cancer in humans.
Phase 2 takes that dosage Phase 1 resulted in and monitors the drug’s safety and possibly pair it with existing drugs.
Phase 3 tests against the current standard of care. Patients are usually randomized, so clinicians can assess patients by which group they are in.
Phase 4 tests drugs that the FDA approves. These people are monitored to get better data on side effects previously seen in earlier phases.
This entire process can take YEARS—five to ten years in some cases.
Before ANY of that can happen, clinicians need people to qualify for the trials. It’s not just a matter of identifying people with a particular kind of illness. If it were, every clinical trial would be full. Patients must meet a laundry list of qualifications & parameters set by drug companies. The number of inclusionary criteria can be (and usually are) in the double digits. There are also exclusionary criteria that can deem you as not acceptable. That list can be just as long or longer, including previous biologic (cytotoxic) chemotherapy, having brain mets, prior radiation, etc. Scans have to be done, forms have to be filled out, and patients must adhere to a washout period. Patients can not have any trace of treatment drugs in their system before starting a trial. However, this “period” can be as long as six weeks or, in some cases, even longer. Think about that for a moment. Do you know how fast metastatic cancer can progress in six weeks? When the cancer is already active, not being on any treatment can make it progress exponentially quicker. Some patients die during this washout period. Next time you hear there aren’t enough people for clinical trials, remember that washout period.
What I find unacceptable is when clinical trial parameters don’t/won’t make reasonable accommodations for patients who have common and real-world contraindications because “it’s how other locations are doing it.” Even something as simple as how the stability of disease is measured can add another layer of anxiety to a patient participating in a clinical trial. Imagine a patient whose PET scans have previously been monitored due to a common iodine allergy to CT dye unable to have contrast in scan required to monitor the patient in the study. The only way they will monitor if the trial drug is working is with a CT WITHOUT contrast. PET scans are not allowed because the other locations/countries involved don’t do PET scans. Having a scan without contrast is similar to being in a room with the lights off and trying to get around. Something is bound to be overlooked. Even things as simple as blood work for the trial can require the patient to travel to the trial’s location weekly, or in some cases even more, JUST to get a basic CBC Blood test that is common enough to be run at home. What could be a local trip now requires commuter patients to potentially drive hours or find a flight to have a basic lab draw. Sure it’s good and convenient for the trial, but it can be utterly prohibitive for the patients, even if it’s their last hope.
The High Cost of Trials
Not all trials are local to where patients live. They often require regular travel, extended stays in the city the clinical trial is in, which means money for food. The clinical trial doesn’t always cover all of these expenses, so there is a component of financial toxicity that can be very overwhelming on top of everything else. Hotels haven’t gotten cheaper during the pandemic. Many of the free or reduced lodging programs through major cancer centers have stopped during the pandemic making it nearly impossible to find free or deeply discounted lodging for the patient. You would think by now we would be in a place where people could participate in a trial from their home base and have doctors communicate with each other.
So, what if you’re in a trial that’s located at a different hospital? Who is responsible for your care above and beyond the clinical trial? If you develop a problem while you’re home, do you go to your doctor? I would assume it to be yes. I found that it’s not that simple. Clinical trials can complicate things. If you need a medication for a separate issue, will it kick you out of the clinical trial? Maybe.
In one situation, a patient currently in a clinical trial has all but been dropped by her local medical team. When she called her oncologist about a new infection that is not a side effect of the trial, her doctor told her to let the people overseeing the clinical trial know or go to urgent care. As far as they are concerned, she’s now under the care of the clinical trial 4 hrs away. The clinical trial folks instruct her to see her regular doctors. Palliative care has all but been stripped from her. Imagine having breathing issues with oxygen levels that don’t even reach in the ’90s, and NO ONE is monitoring you. She’s now in cancer limbo. You’d be OK with that. No, no, you would not.
Now when I hear there’s “not enough people for clinical trials,” I think, no shit. Why would anyone enroll? The burden on us patients is too high a cost -financially, physically, and emotionally. It outweighs the benefits. Becoming a human hot potato tossed back and forth between doctors while they cry “not it” is very unappealing.
It’s not a secret that the clinical trial process is broken. Those involved in advocacy have been trying to make changes with clinical trials – making them more inclusionary, basing the washout period on the most recent drug the patient has been on (they don’t require the same amount of time to leave the body). From my perspective, it’s not only broken; it’s fractured. In order to remedy this, drug companies must make clinical trials easier on the patients they need. After all – the goal is to help extend the lives of people, right? Maybe by allowing for basic accommodations, we can reiterate that the data points in studies all have faces, families, and stories that shouldn’t include extra barriers beyond their diagnosis to survive. The following MUST be part of the clinical trial protocol:
- Provide a clear understanding of the financial toxicity in and outside the clinic to participate in the trial and were to apply for grants or assistance if the clinical trial doesn’t help pay these costs.
- Make reasonable testing accommodations.
- Regular communication between the patient’s medical team to ensure proper care is provided.
- Have palliative care continue or be available to those that need it.
- Assign a navigator that patients can address questions or concerns.
I still support funding research; howthefuckever, something has to give for the clinical trials themselves. We are people who are sick that want more time. We do not need to be spending the extra time we are gaining, falling into crippling debt, or pushing to have our humanity acknowledged.
We deserve better.