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