Get the Facts: Understanding Prevention Studies

Focused on Health - February 2009

By Adelina Espat

Many people may not realize that cancer research studies are not just for cancer patients. People who have not been diagnosed with cancer and those who have successfully completed cancer treatment are excellent potential candidates for cancer prevention studies.

By participating in a prevention study, people help researchers learn more about the causes of cancer and how to avoid them. Some of today’s most well-known cancer prevention behaviors, like eating fruits and vegetables, getting a Pap test, and being vaccinated for HPV, were proven by research done with individuals who did not have cancer.

Study Types

The National Cancer Institute divides cancer prevention studies into two types.

Action Study

In action studies, participants change their behaviors – they exercise more or quit smoking – to help researchers determine whether or how healthy lifestyle habits help prevent cancer.

Agent Studies

In agent studies, participants take certain “agents,” like medicines, vitamins or food supplements (or a combination) that researchers believe may lower a person’s risks of developing a specific cancer.

Some prevention studies may collect demographic, lifestyle, medical and family history information to learn more about the health needs of the community.

Benefits of Participating

Cancer prevention studies offer participants the best options for improving their overall health and well-being. These studies also help reduce the number of people who may get cancer. Before joining a study, you should consider the possible benefits and risks.


  • You will see a health care provider during the study (you should still see your own doctor for routine medical care).
  • You take an active role in your own future health.
  • You may lower your chance of getting cancer.
  • You will have the chance to help scientists discover ways to keep your children and others from getting cancer in the future.


  • In an “agent” study, the medicines or vitamins you take may have side effects.
  • The medicines or vitamins you take may not work as well as proven ways to lower your chances of getting cancer.
  • You may not lower your chances of getting cancer.

Source: National Cancer Institute

Participants can always discuss their concerns about the benefits or risks of participation with a study staff member or nurse.

Joining a Study

M. D. Anderson is recruiting for various cancer prevention studies, including tobacco cessation studies that can help you quit smoking. Find out if you qualify.

Costs for participating vary from study to study. Speak with a study doctor, nurse or staff member before joining to learn what costs must be covered by you or your health plan.

A prevention study is a secure environment where people can get the best care from a skilled medical team, who follow strict scientific and ethical principles. An Institutional Review Board (IRB), made up of doctors, researchers, community leaders and other community members, closely monitors prevention studies to protect the rights and health of participants. A participant can leave a clinical trial at any time, even after signing consent forms.