Overcoming Barriers to Accessing Small Cell Lung Cancer Care

Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) has a deep commitment to educate and empower patients and care partners in the lung cancer community. Lung cancer treatment options are ever-evolving with new testing and treatments, and it’s essential for patients and families to educate themselves with health literacy tools and resources on updated information in lung cancer care. With this goal in mind, PEN created the [ACT]IVATED Small Cell Lung Cancer program, which aims to inform, empower, and engage patients to stay abreast of lung cancer care updates.

The [ACT]IVATED Small Cell Lung Cancer program is geared to newly diagnosed lung cancer patients, yet it is beneficial for limited stage and extensive stage patients alike and for patient advocates. [ACT]IVATED Small Cell Lung Cancer helps patients and care partners stay abreast of the latest options for their lung cancer, provides patient activation tools to help overcome barriers to accessing care and powerful tips for self-advocacy, coping, and living well with cancer.


Small Cell Lung Cancer and Proactive Patients

Unfortunately, the stigma of lung cancer follows small cell lung cancer (SCLC) patients as well. Patient navigator Diana explained some of the history of lung cancer stigma. “Even though smoking is a major risk factor for SCLC, nobody deserves to get cancer. Nicotine is an addictive substance that is extremely difficult for many smokers to quit – especially for those who started at a very young age. Past TV ads to stop smoking built a stigma around cigarette smoking that has created an environment of blame around lung cancer. The stigma is many times greater for extensive stage small cell lung cancer patients.

Advancing on the path to informed and optimal care requires patients to make efforts in self-education and empowerment. These efforts come in various forms but include approaches like improving clinical trial access, learning more from credible resources, asking questions to ensure your best care, and helping to educate others about lung cancer. Cancer patient Lisa Hatfield spoke with lung cancer expert Dr. Rafael Santana-Davila, Dr. Vinicius Ernani, and Beth Sandy to learn some key questions and actions for patients to take. 

Small cell lung cancer falls under one of two categories – limited stage or extensive stage. Dr. Rafael Santana-Davila explained the distinguishing factors and the importance of communication between the medical team members. “In the majority of cases, there’s a very clear distinction, for example, patient has metastatic disease to the liver, that clearly is extensive, stage, but there are occasions where, limited and extensive is very hard to know…all of medicine is a team sport, but treatment of cancer is more because the medical oncologists need to talk to the radiation oncologists to make sure that we’re on the same page as to what is the best treatment we can offer a patient.“

It’s essential for SCLC patients and care partners to prepare themselves for the treatment journey to help ensure their best care. Dr. Santana-Davila shared some key questions to ask to empower themselves for treatment. “…key questions that families should ask at the outset of care, and this is for extensive stage cancer as well as any other cancer, is ‘What are the goals of treatment? What do I expect it to be? How is my life going to look a few months from now? And what can I expect?’ That is, for me, very important that patients know before they start on the journey of treatment.

Thoracic medical oncology nurse practitioner Beth Sandy from Abramson Cancer Center shared patient advice for questions to ask at the outset of care to help patients empower themselves. “…make sure you know your stage, make sure you’re understanding what your treatments will be, and then make sure you understand what support services are available to you.”

Patients from underrepresented communities and all patients should ask questions to help ensure optimal care. Dr. Santana-Davila shared advice on proactive questions to ask. “’What are the latest developments in the treatment of this lung cancer? And am I eligible to receive those treatments? And is this a time where I should seek a second opinion or be referred to a clinical trial and another center?’”

Nancy Gatschet

Nancy Gatschet

Small cell lung cancer patients must be heard by their doctors for their best care. SCLC survivor and PEN Board Member Nancy Gatschet shared her experience with her care team members and their roles in her care. “Doctors matter. A lot. I was treated at an NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center by several exceptional doctors. What made them exceptional? Their listening and observational skills first and foremost, their dedication to staying current with research, and their caring.”

Small Cell Lung Cancer Clinical Trials and Future Treatments

 Clinical trials are vital for refining and advancing treatments for small cell lung cancer. Dr. Santana-Davila shared his perspective about clinical trials and also explained that many clinical trials can assist patients with transportation and lodging costs. “So it’s important for patients to consider clinical trials. That is where we’re analyzing the future medications, and many of those future medications will become the standard of care and by participating in clinical trials, patients will have access to those medications.

Even though non-small cell lung cancer has had more treatment advancements in comparison to small cell lung cancer, that doesn’t mean that the future is bleak. Dr. Santana-Davila shared his perspective about the future of SCLC care and clinical trial opportunities. “So although it’s true that patients with non-small cell lung cancer have had more advances, there is still a lot of hope for the future. And what I can tell you it’s changing rapidly. And in a year, the treatments that we may have available will be different. And all those things are right now going into clinical trials.”

Dr. Vinicius Ernani from the Mayo Clinic sees a bright future for SCLC treatment as well. He shared his perspective with Lisa Hatfield, “…we have some important drugs coming in early development, like I mentioned before, ADCs, antibody drug conjugates. So my hope, that is we are going to be in a better spot in the near future.


[ACT]IVATED Small Cell Lung Cancer Program Resources

The [ACT]IVATED Small Cell Lung Cancer program series takes a three-part approach to inform, empower, and engage both the overall lung cancer community and patient groups who experience health disparities. The series includes the following resources:

[ACT]IVATED Animated Video Series

[ACT]IVATED Expert Interviews



Though there are small cell lung cancer challenges and stigma, patients and care partners can take action to educate themselves to help ensure optimal care. We hope you can benefit from these valuable resources to aid in your lung cancer care for yourself or for your loved one.

Empowering Providers to Empower Lung Cancer Patients

Empowering patients is at the heart of efforts at Patient Empowerment Network (PEN), and work toward reducing health disparities is part of conversations among healthcare professionals. Precision medicine and the use of biomarker testing is one area of interest in efforts to eliminate healthcare disparities

With this in mind, PEN has taken on a new initiative, the Empowering Providers to Empower Patients (EPEP) initiative. Starting in lung cancer, the program expands PEN’s reach to healthcare professionals with the goal of improving physician-patient communication; shared decision-making; and the role that lung cancer patients, survivors, care partners, and healthcare professionals each play in the shared decision-making process.

The EPEP initiative includes the following resources:

  • Needs Assessment outlines key factors that enable patient empowerment, attributes of an empowered patient, and advice for healthcare professionals to perform a needs assessment for each patient.
  • EPEP Roundtables with lung cancer experts Dr. Heather Wakelee, Dr. Lyudmila Bazhenova, Dr. Leigh Boehmer and Dr. Jessica Bauman as they discuss a range of topics including ways to improve physician-patient communication, learnings from tumor boards, collaboration between academic and community oncologists, biomarker testing, and addressing barriers to biomarker testing.
  • EPEP Vignettes where lung cancer clinician Dr. Jhanelle Gray from Moffitt Cancer Center shares her experience in biomarker testing, personalized combination therapeutics, and best practices in treating and empowering patients toward more equitable and culturally sensitive care.
  • EPEP Biomarker Testing Resource Guide that covers benefits of biomarker testing, when to test, dos and don’ts of biomarker testing, perspectives from a patient and a clinician, and resources for patients.
  • EPEP Portal utilizes PEN’s robust resource library and that of numerous trusted advocacy partners to create a vetted list of patient education resources. PEN delivers a curated PDF according to your interests and delivers it efficiently to your inbox.
  • Infographics that address the differences between cultural competence versus cultural humility and key steps to work toward practicing cultural humility to help empower your patients in their lung cancer care.

Dr. Jhanelle Gray quote

Key Takeaways to Help Empower Lung Cancer Patients

PEN had the opportunity to interview experts Dr. Jhanelle Gray, Dr. Heather Wakelee, and Dr. Leigh Boehmer to learn about some of their expertise. They shared their perspectives about vital ways that they work with patients to help empower them and to work toward the best personalized care for each patient.

Dr. Boehmer shared the importance of biomarker testing to identify driver mutations, “…more than half of patients who’ve developed lung cancer who have never smoked or have a light smoking history are going to have an actionable driving mutation, and even in people who do have a smoking history, of any ethnic background, they’re still 10 to 20 percent or maybe more as we identify more of these driver mutations, where that’s what’s really the force in the tumor.

And if you find it and you can start someone on the appropriate targeted therapy, usually across multiple trials, the toxicity is less than you would get with chemotherapy or immunotherapy…the probability of response is over half, you know, if someone’s going to have a benefit that that’s going to help them feel better for a period of time in controlling their cancer, it really drastically changes their whole tumor outcome, they’re going to be living longer, feeling better, and ultimately that’s our goal when we’re helping someone with metastatic disease…You have to have the physician aware of the importance of finding the mutation, altering the treatment as necessary, and giving that patient the best possible option for care.

Dr. Gray and Dr. Boehmer also have preferred medical terms when they explain to their patients about biomarker testing. Dr. Gray prefers to steer away from terms that have to do with genomics or genetics and uses the terms “biomarker testing” or “comprehensive biomarker testing” instead. While Dr. Boehmer shares, “I think that’s really important that people always remember to talk about the tumor and not about the mutation in the person, that’s really, really critical.

Physician Best Practices for Biomarker Testing

With her experience in using biomarker testing in planning personalized combination therapeutics, Dr. Gray shares advice for other healthcare providers. “I think for a provider it is going to be very important when a patient is newly diagnosed with non-small cell lung care especially when they have advanced and later stages as this should be a comprehensive test. This should be a certified assay. I think they should also look at turnaround time for this testing, does the assay include a liquid biopsy portion and a tissue biopsy portion? Is there one that you want to run before the other?

Many times what I will do when I meet a patient initially and they have an advanced or metastatic stage non-small cell lung cancer, I’ll send off the liquid biopsy right then and there, the same day in the hope that I can get the test results back within 7 to 10 days. I will also order the tissue testing. Should the liquid biopsy results from the blood specimen come back sooner, then I can cancel the tissue testing if I feel confident enough in the results. This will then preserve tissue for later analyses. It can also preserve tissue should they need to enroll in an innovative clinical trial and expand their therapeutic options.”

HCP Roundtable

Advocacy for Biomarker Testing

Dr. Wakelee speaks to advocacy for biomarker testing, “…many organizations, including IASLC, including ACCC, including NCCN…I mean, you could name any organization that’s involved in cancer care and education, is really focusing on this issue of making sure that every oncologist knows the importance of doing biomarker testing for patients with non-small cell lung cancer, that we are trying to expand that not just to the oncologist, but also to the folks making the diagnosis, so they can be aware as well…The more people who are aware that’s a standard of care in treating lung cancer, the more that’s going to happen, and then continuing to explore those financial barriers, and as more agents are FDA-approved, where that becomes a preferred first sign option, but you only know that if the testing’s happened, that leads to campaigning to make sure that the testing is being covered as well.”

Dr. Boehmer further explains about the logistics of advocating for biomarker testing. “ACCC…recognizes that a lot of community programs don’t have kind of operational best practices for how to incorporate biomarker testing into a patient’s journey…we’re working on creating care pathways which will help multidisciplinary clinician teams integrate discussions of biomarker testing and its impact at various critical time points along a patient’s diagnosis to treatment, to survivorship or end-of-life care…talking about when and how to have meaningful conversations, and then doing it with health-literate, vetted resources and through a lens of equity and shared decision-making, because you look like me, you had success with it. I’m going to do it for my at-risk patients as well, because one, it’s the right thing to do. And two, you taught me how to do it, and three, you told me what success looks like so I can measure myself against you, and that’s a successful model for scalability.”

And Dr. Gray shares advocacy organizations and ways to move toward biomarker testing equity for all patients. “For those again who are having some difficulty with getting biomarker testing for their patients, I would strongly encourage you to find an advocacy organization such as American Lung Association, LUNGevity, GO2 Foundation, there are many many others out there that are very much interested in improving access to patients with non-small cell lung cancer. This is really a critical area of need and that we really have to drive forward with healthcare equity in this setting…And so, I think putting all this together and coming together as a field is where we can move together and with the patients, the providers, and the advocacy organizations I think that we should all feel empowered to move the needle forward for our patients.”

The bottom line is, while oncologists have more tools to treat lung cancer, access and language remains a big factor in biomarker testing. Comprehensive biomarker testing can play a very important role in the personalized treatment for patients with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), but many questions remain. How do we improve clinician-patient conversations in biomarker testing? And how do we remove barriers that can impede an HCP’s ability to treat patients with personalized care? As the lung cancer field continues to experience tremendous growth in precision medicine, we hope healthcare providers can take advantage of these timely resources of the EPEP initiative to work toward equitable and culturally sensitive care for lung cancer patients. 

Download Resource Guide

Three Promising Areas of Lung Cancer Research

What are three promising areas of lung cancer research? In the “Emerging Therapies| Hope for the Future of Lung Cancer Care” program, expert Dr. Jyoti Patel from Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University shares updates about emerging research and insights about the future of lung cancer care. 

1. Identification of Oncogenes

Identification of oncogenes is an active area of lung cancer research efforts. HER2 mutations and EGFR Exon 20 mutations are a couple examples of oncogenes that are targeted in research to develop more effective treatments against them. The epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) gene mutation that adds the exon 20 mutation is rare, but when the mutation occurs it’s more likely to occur in those with a non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) type of adenocarcinoma, in women, in those of Asian descent, and young adults with NSCLC.

 2. Mitigate Resistance in Targeted Therapies

Drug resistance is also under study to mitigate issues for those who receive targeted therapies. Unfortunately, those who are treated with targeted therapies eventually develop resistance, so this is why this is another focus of current research efforts. There are three generations of EGFR treatments, and now fourth-generation tyrosine kinase inhibitor treatments are being researched to provide an additional line of treatments.

3. Understanding Tumor Microenvironment

The tumor microenvironment is under study to understand more about the different types of responses to immunotherapies. Though some patients have positive and vigorous responses to immunotherapies, other patients exhibit immunity to the impact of immunotherapies. Researchers are looking at the tumor microenvironment for potential ways to co-stimulate vigorous and durable immunotherapy responses for improved lung cancer care.

Lung cancer research is currently investigating many areas of research, and recent lung cancer treatment advances have increased patient survival rates and quality of life. Researchers are also investigating many areas for further screening and treatment advances, including potential blood tests for early detection. If you want to learn more about lung cancer care and treatments, check out our lung cancer information.

Confused About Immunotherapy and Its Side Effects? You Aren’t Alone

“You don’t look like you have cancer.”

More than one patient undergoing immunotherapy to treat cancer has reported hearing statements like that. Immunotherapy is one of the recent advances in cancer treatment that belie the stereotypes about the effects of cancer treatment. 

The side effects of immunotherapy are different from those associated with chemotherapy and radiation. However, that does not mean immunotherapy does not have side effects. Patients and care partners need to be aware of these potential side effects and to be vigilant in addressing them with their oncologists because they can signal more serious complications if left untreated.

What is Immunotherapy?

Despite the increase of immunotherapy treatment options in recent years and considerable media attention paid to advancements in this field, there remains confusion about immunotherapy and its side effects. Many cancer patients are unaware of whether immunotherapy treatments are available for their specific diagnosis. Others don’t know that genetic profiling of their tumors is usually required to determine if immunotherapy is an option and not all treatment centers routinely conduct genetic profiles of tumors. A  survey by The Cancer Support Community found that the majority of patients who received immunotherapy knew little to nothing about it prior to treatment and were unfamiliar with what to expect.

Immunotherapy works by manipulating the patient’s immune system to attack cancer cells. It is perceived as gentler and more natural than chemotherapy and radiation, without the same destructive effect on the body’s healthy tissues.  This, combined with a lack of prior understanding of immunotherapy, can lead patients and care partners ill-prepared for possible side effects.

Furthermore, immunotherapy is a category of therapies, not a single type of treatment. There are a variety of immunotherapy drugs, most of which are administered via infusion.  Side effects will vary by drug, the cancer and its location, treatment dose, and the patient’s overall health.

The following are the most common types of immunotherapy.

  • Checkpoint inhibitors use drugs to block proteins in the patient’s immune system that would otherwise restrain the immune system, often referred to as taking the “brakes” off the immune system.
  • CAR-T therapy modifies the patient’s T-cells in a lab to enhance their ability to bind to cancer cells and attack and kill them.
  • Oncolytic virus therapy uses genetically modified viruses to kill cancer cells.
  • Another therapy uses cytokines (small proteins that carry messages between cells) to stimulate the immune cells to attack cancer.

Immunotherapy can be part of combination therapy. It might be combined with chemotherapy. It might be used to shrink a tumor that is then surgically removed.  Or multiple immunotherapy drugs might be used simultaneously.

What Are The Side Effects?

With immunotherapies, side effects typically occur when the immune system gets too revved up from the treatment. The most common side effects for immunotherapy treatments are fatigue, headache, and fever with flu-like symptoms. Some people also experience general inflammation often in the form of a rash. Many melanoma patients report blotchy skin discoloration, called vitiligo, during treatment. These milder side effects can usually be managed with over-the-counter remedies and adjustments to daily activities.

For checkpoint inhibitors, the fastest growing segment of immunotherapy treatments, mild side effects occur in 30% – 50% of patients. Serious side effects typically occur in less than 5% of patients. (See “Understanding Immunotherapy Side Effects” from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network and the American Society of Clinical Oncology.)

Less common side effects are blisters, joint pain, thyroid inflammation, and colitis (inflamed colon resulting in diarrhea with cramping). Some patients who receive CAR T-cell therapy develop a condition known as cytokine release syndrome, which causes fever, elevated heart rate, low blood pressure, and rash. 

In rare cases, immunotherapy has resulted in lung inflammation, hepatitis, inflammation of the pituitary, and detrimental effects on the nervous and endocrine systems. In most cases, the conditions clear up when treatment ends.  However, there have been outcomes in which immunotherapy caused diabetes or tuberculosis.

“Overall there are fewer side effects [with immunotherapy],” explained Dr. Justin Gainor, a lung and esophageal cancer specialist at Mass General during an Immunotherapy Patient Summit hosted by the Cancer Research Institute. “But the immune system can affect anything from the top of the head down to the toes. Any organ has the potential to be affected.”

As the application of immunotherapy has expanded, so has our understanding of the potential side effects. Like most medical treatments, how one person responds to immunotherapy can be different from another even when the cancer diagnosis and drug therapy are the same.

The essential thing patients and care partners need to know about side effects is they should always be reported to their oncologist or nurse oncologist.

Why Patients Should Talk to Their Provider About Immunotherapy Side Effects

Because immunotherapy has created newer therapy options, there isn’t the volume of experiences as with older treatments. The infinite number of variables that patients provide once a treatment moves beyond clinical trials and into the general patient population generate more diverse outcomes.  And, as most therapies are less than 10 years old, there hasn’t been an opportunity to study the long-term effect of these therapies. This is why oncologists advise patients and their caregivers to be extra vigilant in noting any changes experienced during and after treatment.

Many side effects are easy to treat but medical providers want patients to be forthcoming in discussing any and all side effects. This is in part to improve understanding of side effects, but also because a mild cough or a case of diarrhea might be harbingers of a more systemic issue that will grow worse if left untreated.

Patients should not be hesitant to discuss side effects because they fear they will be taken off immunotherapy.  Sometimes a pause in treatment might be necessary, but the earlier the oncologist is made aware of a side effect, the less likely that will be necessary.

In addition, patients undergoing immunotherapy should always take the name(s) of their immunotherapy drugs and the name of their oncologist when seeing medical professionals outside of their cancer treatment team. This is especially important when visiting the ER.  Because immunotherapy drugs are newer and highly targeted to certain cancers, many medical professionals remain unfamiliar with drug interactions and treating related side effects.

Immunotherapy On The Rise

Immunotherapy treatments have resulted in reports of remission in cases that would’ve been deemed hopeless just five or 10 years ago.  The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has approved various immunotherapy treatments for melanoma, lung cancer, head and neck cancer, bladder cancer, cervical cancer, liver cancer, stomach cancer, lymphoma, breast cancer, and most recently bladder cancer.  (Here is a list of  immunotherapies by cancer type from the Cancer Research Institute.)

“It’s revolutionized how we treat our patients,” says Dr. Gainor of Mass General about immunotherapy’s impact on lung and esophageal cancer.

Advances in immunotherapy research and trials continue to generate optimism and excitement. A clinical study in Houston is looking at using immunotherapy to prevent a recurrence. Researchers in Britain recently announced a discovery that might lead to advances in immunotherapy treatments to a much broader array of cancers.

While there is excitement around the field of immunotherapy and it has resulted in unprecedented success in treating some previously hard-to-treat cancers, it remains an option for a minority of cancer diagnoses.  It works best on solid tumors with more mutations, often referred to as having a high-mutational load or microsatellite instability (MSI) high. And it is not universally successful for every patient.

With hundreds of clinical trials involving immunotherapy alone or in combination with other therapies, it is certain more treatment options are on the horizon. As more therapies are developed and more patients with a greater variety of conditions undergo immunotherapy, we will also increase our understanding of potential side effects.

Side effects should not dissuade patients and care partners from considering immunotherapy if it is available or from advocating for genetic tests to deteimine if it is an option. Many patients undergoing immunotherapy have previously undergone chemotherapy and report that the side effects are fewer and milder by comparison.  The important thing is that patients and their partners know what to expect and communicate with their treatment team.

If the next 10 years in immunotherapy research and development are anything link eth elast 10, we can expect more exciting advancements in the battle against cancer. For more perspective on what’s ahead for immunotherapy see the Cancer Research Institute’s article: Cancer Immunotherapy in 2020 and Beyond.

Understanding Clinical Trials: A Jargon Buster Guide

When it comes to cancer treatment you or a loved one may be considering participating in a clinical trial as a treatment option.  Clinical trials are designed to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of a treatment. They may involve researchers administering drugs, taking blood or tissue samples, or checking the progress of patients as they take a treatment according to a study’s protocol.

Learning about clinical trials can be a steep learning curve – not least because the process comes with a lot of new terms, acronyms and jargon.  To help you, I’ve put together this list of the most common terms you will find when you are researching clinical trial information. This is not an exhaustive list but it is a helpful starting point. At the end of this article you will see links to find more information.

Adverse Effects (AE)

Also called Adverse Events, or Adverse Drug Reaction, AEs are any harmful event experienced by a person while they are having a drug or any other treatment or intervention. In clinical trials, researchers must always report adverse events, regardless of whether or not the event is suspected to be related to or caused by the drug, treatment or intervention.


Subsection of people within a study who have a particular intervention.


Bias is an error that distorts the objectivity of a study. It can arise if a researcher doesn’t adhere to rigorous standards in designing the study, selecting the subjects, administering the treatments, analysing the data, or reporting and interpreting the study results. It can also result from circumstances beyond a researcher’s control, as when there is an uneven distribution of some characteristic between groups as a result of randomization.


Blinding is a method of controlling for bias in a study by ensuring that those involved are unable to tell if they are in an intervention or control group so they cannot influence the results. In a single-blind study, patients do not know whether they are receiving the active drug or a placebo. In a double-blind study, neither the patients nor the persons administering the treatments know which patients are receiving the active drug. In a triple-blind study, the patients, clinicians/researchers and the persons evaluating the results do not know which treatment patients had. Whenever blinding is used, there will always be a method in which the treatment can be unblinded in the event that information is required for safety.


When a treatment for a specific medical condition already exists, it would be unethical to do a randomized controlled trial that would require some participants to be given an ineffective substitute. In this case, new treatments are tested against the best existing treatment, (i.e. a comparator). The comparator can also be no intervention (for example, best supportive care).


A trial is considered completed when trial participants are no longer being examined or treated (i.e. no longer in follow-up); the database has been ‘locked’ and records have been archived.


A group of people in a study who do not have the intervention or test being studied. Instead, they may have the standard intervention (sometimes called ‘usual care’) or a dummy intervention (placebo). The results for the control group are compared with those for a group having the intervention being tested. The aim is to check for any differences. The people in the control group should be as similar as possible to those in the intervention group, to make it as easy as possible to detect any effects due to the intervention.


How beneficial a treatment is under ideal conditions (for example, in a laboratory), compared with doing nothing or opting for another type of care. A drug passes efficacy trials if it is effective at the dose tested and against the illness for which it is prescribed.

Eligibility Criteria/ Inclusion and Exclusion Criteria

Eligibility criteria ensures patients enrolling in a clinical trial share similar characteristics (e.g. gender, age, medications, disease type and status) so that the results of the study are more likely due to the treatment received rather than other factors.


Observation over a period of time of participants enrolled in a trial to observe changes in health status.

Informed Consent

A process (by means of a written informed consent form) by which a participant voluntarily agrees to take part in a trial, having been informed of the possible benefits, risks and side effects associated with participating in the study.


The treatment (e.g., a drug, surgical procedure, or diagnostic test) being researched. The intervention group consists of the study participants that have been randomly assigned to receive the treatment.


A person responsible for the conduct of the clinical trial at a trial site. If a trial is conducted by a team of individuals at a trial site, the investigator is the responsible leader of the team and may be called the principal investigator (PI).

Multicentre Trial

A clinical trial conducted according to a single protocol but at more than one site, and therefore, carried out by more than one investigator.

Number needed to treat (NNT)

The average number of patients who need to receive the treatment or other intervention for one of them to get the positive outcome in the time specified.

Outcome Measures

The impact that a test, treatment, or other intervention has on a person, group or population.

Phase I, II, III and IV Studies

Once the safety of a new drug has been demonstrated in tests on animals, it goes through a multi-phase testing process to determine its safety and efficacy in treating human patients. If a drug shows success in one phase, the evaluation moves to the next phase

  • Phase 1 tests a drug on a very small number of healthy volunteers to establish overall safety, identify side effects, and determine the dose levels that are safe and tolerable for humans.
  • Phase II trials test a drug on a small number of people who have the condition the drug is designed to treat. These trials are done to establish what dose range is most effective, and to observe any safety concerns that might arise.
  • Phase III trials test a drug on a large number of people who have the condition the drug is designed to treat. Successful completion of Phase III is the point where the drug is considered ready to be marketed.
  • Phase IV trials can investigate uses of the drug for other conditions, on a broader patient base or for longer term use.


A fake (or dummy) treatment given to patients in the control group of a clinical trial.  Placebos are indistinguishable from the actual treatment and used so that the subjects in the control group are unable to tell who is receiving the active drug or treatment. Using placebos prevents bias in judging the effects of the medical intervention being tested.


A group of people with a common link, such as the same medical condition or living in the same area or sharing the same characteristics. The population for a clinical trial is all the people the test or treatment is designed to help.


A plan or set of steps that defines how something will be done. Before carrying out a research study, for example, the research protocol sets out what question is to be answered and how information will be collected and analysed.

Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT)

A study in which a number of similar people are randomly assigned to 2 (or more) groups to test a specific drug, treatment or other intervention. One group has the intervention being tested; the other (the comparison or control group) has an alternative intervention, a placebo, or no intervention at all. Participants are assigned to different groups without taking any similarities or differences between them into account. For example, it could involve using a computer-generated random sequence. RCTs are considered the most unbiased way of assessing the outcome of an intervention because each individual has the same chance of having the intervention.


The ability to get the same or similar result each time a study is repeated with a different population or group.


People in a study recruited from part of the study’s target population. If they are recruited in an unbiased way, the results from the sample can be generalised to the target population as a whole.


In clinical trials, the people selected to take part are called subjects. The term applies to both those participants receiving the treatment being investigated and to those receiving a placebo or alternate treatment.

Trial Site

The location where trial-related activities are conducted.


The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)

TROG Cancer Research



Further Resources

American Society of Clinical Oncology’s Cancer.Net trials site

National Cancer Institute (NCI) Clinical Trials lists open and closed cancer clinical trials sponsored or supported by NCI. 

ClinicalTrials.gov database of privately and publicly funded clinical studies

CenterWatch Clinical Trials Listing

How to Read and Understand a Scientific Paper

In a previous article, How to Read Beyond the Headline: 9 Essential Questions to Evaluate Medical News, I recommended you should always try to read an original study (if cited) to evaluate the information presented. In this follow-on article, you will learn how to read a scientific research paper so that you can come to an informed opinion on the latest research in your field of interest.  Understanding research literature is an important skill for patient advocates, and as with any skill, it can be learned with practice and time.

Let’s start by looking at what exactly we mean by the term “scientific paper”. Scientific papers are written reports describing original research findings. They are published in peer reviewed journals, which means they have been refereed by at least two other experts (unpaid and anonymized) in the field of study in order to determine the article’s scientific validity.

You may also come across the following types of scientific papers in the course of your research.

•       Scientific review papers are also published in peer reviewed journals, but seek to synthesize and summarize the work of a particular sub-field, rather than report on new results.

•       Conference proceedings, which may be published in a journal, are referred to as the “Proceedings of Conference X”. They will sometimes go through peer review, but not always.

•       Editorials, commentaries and letters to the editor offer a review or critique of original articles. They are not peer-reviewed.

Most scientific journals follow the IMRD format, meaning its publications will usually consist of an Abstract followed by:

•       Introduction

•       Methods

•       Results

•       Discussion


Let’s look at each of these sections in turn.

(a) Introduction  

The Introduction should provide you with enough information to understand the article. It should establish the scientific significance of the study and demonstrate a relevant context for the current study.  The scope and objectives of the study should be clearly stated.

When reading the Introduction, ask yourself the following questions:

·       What specific problem does this research address?

·       Why is this study important?

(b) Methods

The Methods section outlines how the work was done to answer the study’s hypothesis. It should explain new methodology in detail and types of data recorded.

As you read this section, look for answers to the following questions:

  • What procedures were followed?
  • Are the treatments clearly described?
  • How many people did the research study include? In general, the larger a study the more you can trust its results. Small studies may miss important differences because they lack statistical power. Case studies (i.e. those based on single patients or single observations) are no longer regarded as scientific rigorous.
  • Did the study include a control group? A control group allows researchers to compare outcomes in those who receive a treatment with those who don’t.

 (c) Results

The Results section presents the study’s findings.  It should follow a logical sequence to answer the study hypothesis.  Pay careful attention to any data sets shown in graphs, tables, and diagrams. Try to interpret the data first before reading the captions and details.  If you are unfamiliar with statistics, you will find a helpful glossary of terms here.  Click here for an online guide to help you understand key concepts of statistics and how these concepts relate to the scientific method and research.

Consider the following questions:

  • Are the findings supported by persuasive evidence?
  • Is there an alternative way to interpret these findings?

(d) Discussion 

The Discussion places the study in the context of the broader field of research. It should explain how the research has moved the body of scientific knowledge forward and outline the next steps for further study.

Questions to ask:

•       Does the study have any limitations? Limitations are the conditions or influences that cannot be controlled by the researcher.  Any limitations that might influence the results should be mentioned in the study’s findings.

  • How are the findings new or supportive of other work in the field?
  • What are some of the specific applications of the study’s findings?

The IMRD format provides you with a useful framework to read a scientific paper. You will need to read a paper several times to understand its findings. Consider your first reading of the study as a “big picture” reading.  Scan the Abstract for a summary of the study’s principal objectives, the methods it used and the principal conclusions. A well-written abstract should allow you to identify the basic content of an article to determine its relevance to you.  In describing how she determines the relevance of a study, research RN, Katy Hanlon, focuses on “key words and phrases first. Those that relate to the author/s base proposal as well as my own interests”.  Medical writer, Nora Cutcliffe, also scans upfront “to gauge power and relevance of clinical trial data”. She looks for “study enrollment (n), country and year”. It’s important to note the publication date to determine if this article contains the latest findings or if there is more up-to-date research available. Cutcliffe also advises you should “note author affiliations and study sponsors”.  Here you are looking out for any potential bias or vested interest in a particular outcome.  Check the Acknowledgments section to see if the author(s) declare any financial interests in the research which might bias their findings. Finally, check if the article is published in a credible journal.  You will find reputable biomedical journals indexed by Pubmed and Web of Science.

Next, circle or take note of any scientific terms or keywords you don’t understand and look up their meaning before your second reading. Scan the References section – you may even want to read an article listed here first to help you better understand the current study.

With the second reading you are going to deepen your comprehension of the study. You’ll want to highlight key points, consult the references, and take notes as you read.  According to the scientific publisher, Elsevier, “reading a scientific paper should not be done in a linear way (from beginning to end); instead, it should be done strategically and with a critical mindset, questioning your understanding and the findings.”  Scientist, Dr Jennifer Raff, agrees. “When I’m choosing papers to read, I decide what’s relevant to my interests based on a combination of the title and abstract”, she writes in How to read and understand a scientific paper: a guide for non-scientists. “But when I’ve got a collection of papers assembled for deep reading, I always read the abstract last”. Raff explains she does this “because abstracts contain a succinct summary of the entire paper, and I’m concerned about inadvertently becoming biased by the authors’ interpretation of the results”.

When you have read the article through several times, try to distill it down to its scientific essence, using your own words. Write down the key points you have gleaned from your reading such as the purpose of the study, main findings and conclusions. You might find it helpful to develop a template for recording notes, or adapt the template below for use. You will then have a useful resource to find the correct reference and to cross reference when you want to consult an article in the future.

In the example below I have taken an article published in 2015, as an example. You can read the paper Twitter Social Media is an Effective Tool for Breast Cancer Patient Education and Support: Patient-Reported Outcomes by Survey on PubMed.

Template for Taking Notes on Research Articles



Further reading

How to Read Beyond the Headline: 9 Essential Questions to Evaluate Medical News

Ben Goldacre writing in Bad Science classified science reporting as falling into three categories – wacky stories, scare stories and breakthrough stories; the last of which he views as ”a more subtly destructive category of science story”. Whether you get your news through digital or traditional means, you can’t fail to notice the regularity with which journalists report on the latest medical breakthroughs. Some of these reports are sensationalist (“coffee causes cancer”) and fairly easy to dismiss; but do you know how to separate fact from fiction when it comes to less sensationalist headlines?

The foundation of empowered patient-hood is built on reliable health information. This means not only knowing where to find medical information, but being able to evaluate it and knowing how it can be applied to your own, or your loved-ones’ particular circumstances. Headlines often mislead people into thinking a certain substance or activity will prevent or cure chronic disease. As patient advocates we must learn to read beyond the headlines to filter out the good, the bad, and the questionable. The following questions are designed to help sort the signal from the noise next time you read the latest news story heralding a medical breakthrough.

1. Does the article support its claims with scientific research?

Your first concern should be the research behind the news article. If an article contains no link to scientific research to support its claims, then be very wary about treating those claims as scientifically credible.

2. What is the original source of the article?

If the article cites scientific research you should still treat the findings with caution. Always consider the source. Find out where the study was done. Who paid for and conducted the study? Is there a potential conflict of interest?

3. Does the article contain expert commentary to back up claims?

Look for expert independent commentary from doctors or other healthcare providers to explain the findings (there should be an independent expert source quoted – someone not directly connected with the research).

4. Is this a conference presentation?

Journalists frequently report on research presented at large scientific meetings. It’s important to realize that this research may only be at a preliminary stage and may not fulfill its early promise.

5. What kind of clinical trial is being reported on?

If the news relates to results from a clinical trial, it’s important you understand how, or even if, the results apply to you. Quite often, news publications report on trials which have not yet been conducted on humans. Many drugs that show promising results in animals don’t work in humans. Cancer.Net and American Cancer Society have useful guides to understanding the format of cancer research studies.

6. What stage is the trial at?

Research studies must go through several phases before a treatment can be considered safe and effective; but many times journalists report on early phase trials as if these hold all the answers. The testing process in humans is divided into several phases:

  •  Phase I trials: Researchers test a new drug or treatment in a small group of people for the first time to evaluate its safety, determine a safe dosage range, and identify side effects.
  • Phase II trials: The drug or treatment is given to a larger group of people to see if it is effective and to further evaluate its safety.
  • Phase III trials: The drug or treatment is given to large groups of people to confirm its effectiveness, monitor side effects, compare it to commonly used treatments, and collect information that will allow the drug or treatment to be used safely.

Source: ClinicalTrials.gov

7. How many people did the research study include?

In general, the larger a study the more you can trust its results. Small studies may miss important differences because they lack statistical power.

8. Did the study include a control group?

A control group allows researchers to compare outcomes in those who receive a treatment with those who don’t. The gold standard is a “randomised controlled trial”, a study in which participants are randomly allocated to receive (or not receive) a particular intervention (e.g. a treatment or a placebo).

9. What are the study’s limitations?

Many news stories fail to point out the limitations of the evidence. The limitations of a study are the shortcomings, conditions or influences that cannot be controlled by the researcher. Any limitations that might influence the results should be mentioned in the study’s findings, so always read the original study where possible.

Useful Resources

  • Sense about Science works with scientists and members of the public to equip people to make sense of science and evidence. It responds to hundreds of requests for independent advice and questions on scientific evidence each year.
  • Trust It or Trash is a tool to help you think critically about the quality of health information (including websites, handouts, booklets, etc.).
  • Understanding Health Research (UHR) is a free service created with the intention of helping people better understand health research in context. It gives clear and understandable explanations of important considerations like sampling, bias, uncertainty and replicability.

An Oncologist’s Perspective on Clinical Trials

(Editor’s note: This article is in 2 parts. This is Part 1 (go here to read Part 2) and consists of an interview of Dr. Anita Wolfer, Senior Oncologist and Head of Unit in Oncological Research, Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV). The interview was conducted by the “Indomitable” Christine Bienvenu, breast cancer patient, avid patient advocate and board member of the Patient Empowerment Foundation, our sister organization under development in Europe. And please, don’t be concerned that this is an interview with a European oncologist. You will be surprised to see that the issues, thoughts, concerns of patients and doctors are the same. These issues are worldwide!)

Great progress has been made today in immunotherapy and targeted therapies – especially in cancer research – thanks to patients having access to clinical trials. It is crucial that patients learn about their options.

Interview With Dr. Anita Wolfer

The Indomitable Christine Bienvenu

The Indomitable Christine Bienvenu

Christine Bienvenu (CB): How do clinicians learn about clinical trials?

Dr. Anita Wolfer (AW): It depends very much on where they’re working: Doctors in university hospitals are constantly informed of clinical trials. Their peers outside the hospital environment are not, though: It’s up to them to actively find clinical trials and stay informed.


CB: Here in Switzerland, are there formal protocols in place for spreading information about clinical trials?

AW: In terms of the medical system, there aren’t any formal protocols on doctors being up to date on clinical trial options. I think it’s important that university doctors take it upon themselves to keep their non-university environment peers informed. Often, unfortunately, those oncologists working outside the hospital environment only think of clinical trials when conventional treatments have failed. For researchers like us, it’s more second nature to turn to them for treatment options.

Here in Switzerland, the “Réseau Romand d’Oncologie” (Western Switzerland’s oncology network) centralizes all the information about clinical trials, and keeps it updated. For the new Swiss Cancer Center Lausanne (SCCL) opening in 2017, its director, Prof. Coukos’ vision is simple: All information – clinical trials, research, collaboration, and participatory medicine – should be accessible to patients and professionals alike.


CB: When and why do clinicians talk about clinical trials to their patients, and how do you view the patient’s role in trials?

AW: Often today, oncologists will only talk to a patient about clinical trials if they see that there’s a direct benefit to the patient. But in my view, it’s important to inform the patient of the clinical trial, regardless so that they too can look into the application process. In an ideal world – and I say this as an oncologist and clinical researcher – there would be a clinical trial for every patient who walks through our doors.

As for the patient’s role, I’m a firm believer that sharing is building in this profession. Patients are crucial in this process: No-one knows their bodies better than they do. The way I see it, any patient of mine gives me the opportunity to learn. I don’t want to waste that.


CB: What obstacles do clinicians face in conveying clinical trial information to their patients?

AW: Unfortunately, some oncologists are afraid that university doctors might “steal” their patients, so they don’t readily refer them for fear of losing income for their own hospital. With patients being so closely followed during the clinical trials as well, this is comforting: Often, they’d rather not go back to their ‘regular’ oncologist. In my view, it’s a shame to look at it that way: If there’s a relationship of confidence and trust with their primary oncologist, if patients know they will get all the necessary information, they’ll be more inclined to stay with their respective ‘regular’ oncologists. To be brutally honest, my feeling is if an oncologist is upset about a patient seeking a second opinion, then maybe it’s time to find a new oncologist? It happens in the medical profession: I’m not immune to it – no-one is. But it shouldn’t be an issue… Just like in any relationship, if the doctor/patient relationship isn’t working out for the patient, he or she has every right to move on.


CB: In your profession, how important is mindset – in both the patient and the doctor or clinician?

As in any profession, or with any patient or co-worker, there are always those who are willing and excited to go the extra mile. If the mindset to do so isn’t there, there really isn’t much that either a patient or an oncologist can do in terms of moving forward. A pro-active mindset is crucial.


CB: In the same vein, how important is mindset in clinical trials, then?

AW: Being convinced about the clinical trial is also very important – not only for the patient, but for the doctor. A well-informed doctor means a well-informed patient. Speaking for myself, I’m constantly on the lookout for the best treatment options for my patients – even if it’s a clinical trial outside the CHUV. Why wouldn’t I? It’s about moving forward in cancer research, not about being territorial with knowledge.


CB: What role, for you, does the sharing of information and access to clinical trials play in patient mindsets?

AW: Armed with information, most patients are willing to be a part of trials – even if it isn’t one they had specifically hoped for. Time and again, we’ve seen how patients who participate in clinical trials usually have better outcomes than patients who don’t. Beyond the obvious rigorous monitoring, the crucial element here is that the patients feel more responsible for, and engaged in, their care. What strikes me, time and again, is that clinical trials offer hope. And while not every clinical trial story is a positive one – with frustration and heartbreak often integral to the process – hope is a crucial element and great motivator.


CB: Getting into clinical trials is no small feat. What improvements, if any, would you suggest? Can patients be better-informed about clinical trials?

AW: In an ideal world, there would be a clinical trial for every patient. One of the objectives of the CHUV oncology department is to have a portfolio of trials so that there are alternatives for every patient. And despite limited resources, the department is working hard to open up a maximum of number of trials. Also, with the SCCL opening up in Lausanne, more research funding is coming in, and more specialised oncologists are coming on board.


CB: What for you is a key component of a successful patient/clinician or doctor relationship?

AW: Ultimately, it’s about trust, confidence and collaboration. And going back to your previous question, if patients feel they’re being fully supported by their oncologist, they’ll return to them – university hospital setting or not. To me, it’s extremely important that patients take the necessary steps to establish the relationship of trust that they seek.


CB: What feedback have your patients given you about their experiences in clinical trials?

AW: Some patients will say outright that they’re not interested. But the vast majority – I’d say 70-80% – are willing participants. So far, I’ve only ever had one patient tell me she wasn’t happy with a clinical trial. For most, it goes beyond participating for their own benefit, per se: it’s about being part of a greater cause and helping medical science advance. Patients are genuinely altruistic. What is clear, though, is that it’s a team effort that involves the patient and the medical community.


CB: Where can patients find information about clinical trials?

AW: There are a number of great resources out there. In no particular order, I can suggest the Swiss Group for Clinical Cancer Research (http://sakk.ch/en/) or Clinical Trials (https://clinicaltrials.gov/) which is a service of the US National Institutes of Health that lists all the studies being done in all 50 US States and in 190 countries.

Here in Switzerland, there are obviously the Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV: http://www.chuv.ch/) or the Geneva University Hospital (HUG: http://www.hug-ge.ch/) websites. Experience has taught me that the university websites are sometimes a bit outdated, but patients can send emails directly to oncologists there and should get an answer.


CB: Any parting words of wisdom?

AW: Patients never doubt themselves in asking questions. There is no such thing as a stupid question. If a patient isn’t having his or her questions answered, he or she has every right to find someone who will! Questions are crucial: They lead to greater understanding, knowledge, and progress.

Also, it’s important to remember that in Clinical Trials, limits have to be set to be able to provide realistic results. Make the criteria too broad, and it becomes difficult to show a trial’s effectiveness. With immunotherapy, clinical trials broaden patient eligibility. Granted, a patient needs to be healthy enough to be able to benefit from a trial, so if for example a patient is in palliative care, they wouldn’t be eligible – unless, of course, the clinical trial is in palliative care.

The National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) “10 step guide on how to find a cancer treatment trial” helps patients better understand what clinical trials are all about, how to talk to their doctors, and know what questions to ask, visit: http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/clinical-trials/search/trial-guide?cid=tw_NCIMain_nci_Clinical+Trials_sf39211784