Researching cancer treatment options
What treatment will give me the greatest chance of surviving this disease?
If you are newly diagnosed with cancer, this is almost certainly a question you will find yourself asking.
Of course, your doctor—who has the results of your biopsy and other lab tests, physical exams and imaging tests—is the best person to weigh your options and recommend the most effective treatment plan. Do not hesitate to ask your doctor questions you might have about your specific type of cancer and its possible treatments, including both their possible risks and benefits.
Still, like many people facing a serious illness, you might find yourself turning to the internet and other sources of information to learn more about your treatment options.
And your search for information may indeed be fruitful.
"There is much valuable information online and elsewhere that is based on scientific evidence and can point you toward beneficial treatments," says Len Lichtenfeld, MD, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society (ACS).
But there is also a worrisome amount of information that is not reliable and "could actually harm you," Dr. Lichtenfeld warns. And it isn't always easy to separate sound information from information that is inaccurate or might steer you toward an unproven or risky treatment, he says.
That's why it's so important to be cautious when researching your treatment options and to keep these three precautions in mind:
1. Seek credible sources of information. Your best bets for reliable, up-to-date information are the federal government, national nonprofit organizations and medical specialty groups, such as:
- The ACS. Their website, cancer.org, contains detailed information about different types of cancer, including treatment decision tools that can give you a detailed analysis of your specific type of cancer, a statistical breakdown of treatment types and issues to discuss with your doctor, and a clinical trials matching service that can help you learn about the clinical trials that are most relevant to you. You can also call the ACS at 1.800.227.2345 to speak to a cancer information specialist.
- The National Cancer Institute (NCI). The NCI's website, cancer.gov, contains a wealth of cancer information. You can also call 1.800.4.CANCER (1.800.422.6237) to speak to an NCI information specialist who can answer questions about things such as your diagnosis, treatment and living with cancer.
- ClinicalTrials.gov. A service of the National Institutes of Health, this website contains a registry of thousands of clinical trials—research studies that use human volunteers to test new treatments. You can use this website to find out what clinical trials you might be eligible for—each study has its own guidelines, determining who can participate.
- The National Library of Medicine. This is the world's largest medical library. You can access its database and search for summaries of the latest cancer research available in medical journals at pubmed.gov.
2. Be wary of scams. Be skeptical about claims, online or elsewhere, that a treatment might cure cancer, and also be suspicious of testimonials from other cancer patients claiming amazing results. Though these testimonials can seem honest and heartfelt, "they may be totally made up," Dr. Lichtenfeld says. Paid actors, not cancer survivors, may be endorsing these products.
3. Get feedback from your doctor if you're curious about a treatment you discover through your research. Checking with your doctor is particularly important before you try a treatment. Ask these questions:
- Does the treatment work?
- Does research support its effectiveness?
- What are the possible risks, side effects or benefits for my specific case?
- Will it interfere with my current treatment plan?
- Has it been proved to be safe?
"Your research isn't complete without feedback from your doctor," Dr. Lichtenfeld says.