REAL LIFE

How a pet Labrador sniffed out her owner’s breast can­cer.

Friday - - Contents -

Bound­ing to­wards me, my dog Daisy looked adorable – her gi­ant paws skid­ded over the wooden floor, her tail wagged and both her ears and tongue flapped as she ran. ‘Stop,’ I wanted to say be­fore she jumped up at me but I re­mained quiet. In­stead I pressed a spe­cial clicker and she halted im­me­di­ately. ‘Good girl,’ I said, pat­ting my Labrador.

She was four years old and the love of my life. I’d bought her at eight weeks old from a dog-breed­ing friend. I hadn’t been able to re­sist this fluffy ball, with the wag­ging tail and bright in­quis­i­tive eyes. And straight­away I’d re­alised she was su­per in­tel­li­gent.

I al­ready had two dogs, Tan­gle, a cocker spaniel, and Woody, a York­shire ter­rier that I had been train­ing to de­tect med­i­cal con­di­tions like can­cers and di­a­betes in hu­mans. But Daisy picked up things amaz­ingly quickly. Within two months, she could eas­ily find a ten­nis ball I’d held from a bag full of iden­ti­cal balls or pick out my T-shirt from a huge pile of

Daisy had BASHED hard into my chest, and I kept think­ing: ‘OUCH, that re­ally HURT.’ Later, when I ex­am­ined the area, I felta LUMP

clothes. Her sense of smell was re­mark­ably sharp.

‘Clever girl,’ I’d say, pet­ting her. She was so easy to teach and quick to learn that it wasn’t long be­fore I thought she could be use­ful for my work. I was 44 and a sci­en­tist and an­i­mal be­hav­iour ex­pert. Af­ter years of be­ing train­ing di­rec­tor of the first study pro­gramme to teach dogs to iden­tify can­cer, I’d set up a char­ity in Mil­ton Keynes in the UK called Med­i­cal De­tec­tion Dogs to see if dogs could de­tect di­a­betes and Ad­di­son’s dis­ease, char­ac­terised by anaemia, bouts of faint­ing, low blood pres­sure as well as ex­treme weak­ness.

I was con­vinced that dogs could sniff out con­di­tions such as low blood sugar lev­els in di­a­bet­ics and even can­cer­ous cells. I had dis­cov­ered that the part of the brain that con­trols smell is 40 times more pow­er­ful in dogs than hu­mans.

Daisy was a great com­pan­ion, but in­tel­li­gent enough to be trained to de­tect med­i­cal con­di­tions. So she joined my re­search team of 10 dogs in the pro­gramme.

The aim was to teach Daisy to alert Type 1 di­a­bet­ics when their blood sugar was low to pre­vent a hy­po­gly­caemic at­tack, as well as alert Ad­di­son’s dis­ease pa­tients of the onset of an at­tack. ‘Come on, Daisy,’ I’d say, tak­ing her into the re­search lab. There she had to sniff out ab­nor­mal cells in breath or urine sam­ples among 20 vials on a carousel. If she or one of the other dogs de­tected any­thing un­to­ward they would stare at the sam­ple, and then be re­warded with a ten­nis ball to play with or a treat.

Daisy was also be­ing trained us­ing scent and breath sam­ples col­lected from Ad­di­son’s dis­ease pa­tients. Dogs can iden­tify when their own­ers are about to have an at­tack and then either jump up or lick their owner to alert them. They are usu­ally ready for ad­vanced train­ing and place­ment with a newowner at around 18months old, but Daisy was al­ways go­ing to stay withme. I just wanted to see how­much I could teach her dur­ing the pro­gramme.

It was good to fo­cus on some­thing so worth­while at work. I was go­ing through a di­vorce and this kept me busy.

One day, I took a break from work to take her andmy other two dogs for a walk. I bun­dled them into the car and off we went to Wal­ton, a lo­cal beauty spot. ‘Time for a run,’ I said, open­ing the car door. Tan­gle and Woody jumped out, but Daisy sat star­ing at me. ‘Come on Daisy,’ I said, but she didn’t budge. ‘Let’s go girl,’ I in­sisted, won­der­ing what was wrong with her. Even­tu­ally I per­suaded her out, but she clum­sily bashed into me a cou­ple of times, then started prod­ding my chest with her nose.

‘Stop it,’ I told her, but she pushed into me again. ‘You’re be­ing a silly girl,’ I laughed. We walked down a trail and she trot­ted along be­side me, but she’d bashed hard in­tomy chest, and I kept think­ing: ‘Ouch, that re­ally hurt.’

That evening, sit­ting in front of the tele­vi­sion, some­thing mademe feel the place onmy left breast where Daisy had been point­ing to.

I gen­tly scanned my fin­gers over the area and al­most im­me­di­ately felt a lump the size of a pea. I had never done a self-ex­am­i­na­tion and so hadn’t no­ticed any­thing. Un­til now. ‘It’s noth­ing sin­is­ter,’ I told my­self, ig­nor­ing worry

knot­ting in my stom­ach. I made an ap­point­ment to get it checked and my GP re­ferred me for a biopsy at Wy­combe Hospi­tal.

Afew days later, a hospi­tal con­sul­tant called me back and ex­plained there was a cyst inmy left breast – the ex­act spot that Daisy had pin­pointed. ‘We also think there’s a deeper lump,’ she said. ‘We would like to do a core biopsy, where a spe­cial nee­dle is in­serted into the lump to take a small sam­ple of breast tis­sue, and a mam­mo­gram to find out more.’

I bit back my fear. Breast can­cer doesn’t run in the fam­ily and I con­vinced my­self that it was noth­ing.

But a week later I was called in again. A nurse sat next to the con­sul­tant and my gut told me some­thing was not right. Fear pulsed through me.

‘We’ve found a lump deep in your breast,’ the con­sul­tant ex­plained. ‘And it’s can­cer­ous.’

The room spun for a mo­ment and the first thought I had was of Daisy – how­she had kept jump­ing up atme, knock­ing my left breast. She knew I had can­cer and had been try­ing to warn me. The doc­tor was still talk­ing and I had to fo­cus to hear what he was say­ing. ‘You are in­cred­i­bly lucky for it to be di­ag­nosed so early. In fact, it is so deep that if you had left it un­til you felt some­thing, it would have been too late.’ I swal­lowed, hor­ri­fied. ‘It’s all down to my dog Daisy, you know?’ I smiled. ‘She’s the one who alerted me to it.’

Back home, I hugged her as I cried. As she licked away my tears, I sud­denly re­alised why I felt such a strong bond with her. She truly was a clever dog, and there were lots of doggy bis­cuits handed out that night.

I called my par­ents, who live close by, and told them. Al­though they were shocked, they quickly rushed over to con­sole me. I was sched­uled for surgery a week later.

‘I’ll be back soon,’ I re­as­sured Daisy. I was de­ter­mined to stay pos­i­tive, and Daisy yapped in agree­ment. Mum and Dad ac­com­pa­nied me to the hospi­tal so I didn’t feel alone. Sur­geons per­formed a lumpec­tomy and my lymph nodes were also re­moved. Four days later, I re­turned home. I was pre­scribed six weeks of ra­dio­ther­apy.

It made me feel sick but I didn’t lose my hair. Af­ter ev­ery ses­sion, when I re­turned home, Daisy would come tome and sit by my side, her paws in my lap. She would just keep star­ing at me un­til I pet­ted her for a while and gen­tly told her to re­lax.

I kept think­ing what a dif­fer­ence my pet had made. If it wasn’t for her, I might not have sur­vived. But then I knew I had the proof I had been look­ing for – that dogs can sniff out can­cer. It felt like fate.

As soon as I was well enough, I went back towork and had a re­newed en­ergy. I was a breast can­cer sur­vivor thanks to Daisy. I needed tomake sure other women sur­vived too.

We’ve now launched a ground­break­ing, three-year breast can­cer trial in­volv­ing 3,000 pa­tients at Mil­ton Keynes Univer­sity Hospi­tal NHS Foundation Trust to de­ter­mine whether dogs can de­tect can­cer cells from urine sam­ples. If suc­cess­ful, we hope the re­sults will im­prove di­ag­no­sis rates by start­ing screen­ing ear­lier, and push for reg­u­lar check-ups among those who have al­ready had the dis­ease.

Since di­ag­nos­ing me, Daisy has be­come the Med­i­cal De­tec­tion Dogs’ fore­most snif­fer, screen­ing 6,500 sam­ples and cor­rectly iden­ti­fy­ing over 500 cases of can­cer. Last year, she be­came the first dog since the res­cue mis­sion of the 7/7 bomb­ings in Lon­don to be awarded the Blue Cross medal for her life-sav­ing abil­i­ties. And I am so proud.

I now live in a vil­lage near Buck­ing­ham with Daisy, Tan­gle, Florin and Midas, all can­cer dogs. Woody died two years ago. Daisy is now10 and due to re­tire soon.

There are times when I feel ex­hausted and worry that the can­cer has come back. But I’ve had a mam­mo­gram ev­ery six months for the past five years and fi­nally have the all-clear. I only have to go for an­nual check-ups.

I be­lieve I owe my life to Daisy and no one will ever per­suade me oth­er­wise. My only hope now is that other can­cer suf­fer­ers will be able to ben­e­fit from a dog’s nose.

Abook by Dr Claire Guest is out next year (2016), ti­tled Daisy, Dill, Woody and Me: My Life with the Can­cer De­tec­tion Dogs. It will be avail­able through Vir­gin Books. Also, visit med­i­calde­tec­tion­dogs.org.uk

I kept think­ing what a DIF­FER­ENCE my pet had made. If it wasn’t for her, I may not have SUR­VIVED. But then I knew I had the PROOF I had been look­ing for: that DOGS can SNIFF out can­cer. It felt like fate

Af­ter be­ing di­ag­nosed, I went home, hugged Daisy and cried. As she licked away my tears, I re­alised why I felt such a strong bond with her

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