Patients participating in phase I oncology trials have terminal cancer and are near the end of life. Participating in research cannot cure them or even extend their lives. Not only because they have terminal cancer, but also because in phase I trials one tests the safety profile of the treatment, not effectiveness against cancer.
Nevertheless, many patients state that hope is an important reason for them to participate in phase I oncology trials. This is worrying from an ethical perspective. Do they understand what they agree to when they enroll as research participants? Have they been properly informed?
In an article in the Journal of Oncology Practice, Tove Godskesen discusses the issue, together with Ulrik Kihlbom. They argue that it is a norm in cancer care to provide hope to patients, and that this norm may support a tendency in personnel who recruit research participants to not always discourage hope, but rather reinforce it.
Since supporting hope in cancer patients is humanly important, it is not entirely easy to find a solution to the problem. Godskesen and Kihlbom proceed cautiously by distinguishing three kinds of hope that cancer patients may have concerning their participation in phase I trials.
The first is independent hope: patients hope for something that is independent of cure, such as receiving more attention by participating in research. The second kind of hope is realistic hope: patients understand that there is really no hope of cure or prolonged life, but they still hope against hope. The third kind is unrealistic hope: patients misunderstand the situation and think they are offered a treatment that doctors/researchers believe can help.
It is reasonable to support independent and realistic hope in phase I trials, according to Godskesen and Kihlbom. However, unrealistic hope is ethically worrying. It should be discouraged when patients enroll as research participants.
Discouraging unrealistic hope requires awareness of the norm to provide hope to cancer patients. The authors describe how a hopeful attitude is activated simultaneously with the cancer diagnosis. Words like treatment, hope and cure are immediately emphasized in the conversations with patients. The risk is that these words are used in the same hopeful spirit also when participation in a phase I trial is discussed.
Another problem in this context is that patients participating in phase I trials rarely receive palliative care, which would be reasonable given their terminal cancer. This may create the false appearance that research participation means being offered a new treatment. Perhaps the norm to provide hope creates this reluctance to mention palliative care. Staff is afraid that they may discourage hope. That fear is problematic, the authors claim.
What measures do Godskesen and Kihlbom propose? First of all, we need to put extra high demands on the information to participants in phase I oncology trials so that this vulnerable patient group is not exploited. Secondly, the information should contain palliative options. Thirdly, patients should receive palliative counseling throughout the trial.
Integrating research participation with palliative care reduces the risk of encouraging unrealistic hope in this patient group. The fact that trial participation is research and not treatment becomes clearer.
Godskesen T. and Kihlbom, U. (2017), “I have a lot of pills in my bag, you know”: institutional norms in the provision of hope in phase I clinical cancer trials. Journal of Oncology Practice 13(10): 679-682. DOI: 10.1200/JOP.2017.021832