July 24, 2023

Navigating clinical trials for cancer treatments

A vial and needle labeled "for clinical trial use only"

A knowledgeable and compassionate team of nurses helps cancer patients at the UW Health | Carbone Cancer Center learn about and connect to clinical trials that may provide another avenue for treatment.

Sarah Kotila, RN, BSN, Clinical Trials Navigator Manager at Carbone Cancer Center, and her team of Clinical Trial Nurse Navigators can talk with patients at any time after their cancer diagnosis to answer questions, provide support and conduct an initial review of existing clinical trials at Carbone they may be eligible to join.

“I really want to make sure that patients know clinical trials can be a potential treatment option to consider at any point in their cancer treatment,” Kotila said. “We have clinical trials that apply to patients when they’re first diagnosed, for early-stage disease, or after people have had a number of lines of therapy. Our trials can also be pre- and post-surgical. Clinical trials are not a last resort — sometimes, the sooner you can explore clinical trials, the more treatment options you can have.”

On average, Carbone has about 250 open clinical trials that span several cancer types and include studies for new therapies, symptom management, diagnostic techniques, preventive medicine and survivorship care. These trials are crucial to advancing all facets of patient care.

“All the cancer treatments we have now came from clinical trials,” Kotila said.

She and three fellow nurses with extensive oncology experience make up the Clinical Trials Navigation Team and are an initial point of contact for patients exploring Carbone’s trials.

The clinical trial nurse navigators can give an overview of what clinical trials are, answer questions and concerns, and review the patient’s medical records for any potential trial options. The patients are then connected with our physicians and research teams running the trials to make a final determination of eligibility for the trial.

Kotila said each clinical trial has a specific research focus, which means patients have to be carefully pre-screened to see if they match the eligibility criteria required for each study. This ensures both the integrity of the research as well as patient safety. Patients are also in control of their participation at all times and can choose to participate or withdraw from an ongoing study if they wish.

“Clinical trials are always optional and participation is always voluntary,” she said.

If there are no current clinical trials at Carbone that match the patient’s needs, Kotila said the team refers them to other resources, such as the National Institutes of Health database on at clinicaltrials.gov and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) at cancer.gov. Patients can also come for a consult with our physicians or check back with Carbone’s Clinical Trials Navigation team periodically to see if any new trials have opened that may fit their needs.

“It’s important to remember that studies can open and close and our trial offerings change,” she said.

To make a referral for clinical trials, new patients can either reach out directly or have their physician initiate a referral at 1 (800) 622-8922. For general information and education about Carbone’s clinical trials, you can reach the Clinical Trials Nurse Navigator team at (608) 262-0439 or clinicaltrials@cancer.wisc.edu. A searchable database is available at uwhealth.org/clinicaltrials.