In the exhausting, often frustrating world of cancer research, creativity is key. The clues scientists continue to find on their search for a cure are consistently in places no one else would ever think to look: the arid rocks of the Atacama Desert and the slimy Bahama seabeds, for example. But what if the key to detecting cancer was right in your very own home, perhaps even chewing on our very own slippers?
Claire Guest knows a thing or two about these friendly slipper-chewers. She’s always seen something in our four-legged friends that others couldn’t, an intelligence that goes beyond fetching and sitting and staying. It’s this “something” that fascinates her…and that ended up saving her life.
Claire was at the park with her golden retriever, Daisy, when something unexpected happened: Daisy refused to walk, choosing instead to nudge her nose against Claire’s chest. Immediately, Claire knew that something was very, very wrong.
As an animal behaviorist, Claire was an expert on Daisy’s normal and abnormal behaviors. Refusing to follow directions? This was totally abnormal for the highly-trained Daisy, but Claire couldn’t figure out why…until she started to feel pain in her chest.
Specifically, she found a lump on her breast, precisely where Daisy had been nudging her. One mammogram and biopsy later, Claire was relieved to find out that the lump was just a cyst…until she received a terrifying call from her doctor.
“The first thing that came into my head was the anxious look Daisy had given me when she was bumping her nose into my chest,” Claire later wrote. As it turned out, Daisy was right to be anxious. Further tests confirmed Claire’s greatest fear.
A small tumor was discovered deep inside her chest wall. If she hadn’t gotten those tests — if Daisy hadn’t continuously nudged Claire’s chest — she would have gone untreated for years. As she underwent radiation treatment, Claire came to a single conclusion.
“[Daisy’s] warning had saved my life,” Claire knew. She’s been in remission for almost a decade, and her experience was the motivation she needed to turn a special side project of hers into a full-fledged quest for a miracle.
Durham University/Medical Detection Dogs/London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
Claire had always been fascinated with dogs, especially with their noses. Their sense of smell far surpasses that of humans, and Claire realized something life-changing. It was Daisy’s highly attuned nose that picked up the scent of the tumor.
With her experience in mind, Claire co-founded Medical Detection Dogs, a charitable foundation that trains dogs to detect odors. Not just any odors, though — they could be trained to smell the scent of an oncoming seizure, low or high blood sugar, and yes, perhaps even cancer.
“Cancer-detecting dogs” weren’t exactly a huge subject ten years ago, so Claire and other interested researchers began trying to fill in the blanks. They’d hoped to find something conclusive, but the results they found were beyond anything they could have imagined.
Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer
A 2004 study found that dogs had a 40% success rate in identifying bladder cancer, a staggering difference from the 14% success rate of usual detection. Some dogs can even sniff out the equivalent of a teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic-size swimming pools.
The Great Mouse Detective/Disney
“What we do know is that this is real,” Clair asserted. Cancer-detecting dogs are possible, and it obviously wasn’t long before the fascinating data caught the eyes of two American researchers with a passion for off-kilter projects.
Andreas Mershin and Wen-Yee Lee were on the lookout for unique ways to approach cancer research, and the data collected about the cancer-sniffing pups captured their attention right away. But as mentioned, the research was scant, so they started from the beginning.
For centuries, humans have used dogs’ natural abilities for their own benefit, especially their olfactory senses. But harnessing these dogs’ sniffing skills wouldn’t be as easy as teaching them to sniff out bombs or drugs.
U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons
Training dogs to detect potential cancers costs upwards of $25,000, a hefty price that many researchers felt wasn’t backed up by data. So, the first half of the equation was training the dogs to be as accurate as possible. The second half? That was a little trickier.
Medical Detection Dogs/YouTube
When cancer cells are present, they interfere with normal metabolic processes in your body and end up producing volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. These are either exhaled or excreted in urine, and apparently, only certain creatures can pick up their scent.
Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center
Understandably, it’s harder to train dogs to pick up the scent of VOCs than of something tangible, like a bomb. And given how expensive it is to train these dogs, it makes us wonder: if only there was a way to cut out the middleman — or in this case, the middle-dog.
Medical Detection Dogs Organization
“What we’re trying to understand from the dogs is how they look at the data they are collecting so we can copy it,” Mershin explained. Trained dogs have detected prostate cancer with 90% accuracy, and Mershin wants to replicate this with his own aptly-named device: the Nano-Nose.
Mershin hopes that the Nano-Nose will take over for the costly dogs while making cancer detection less expensive, more accurate, and less invasive. But as with anything worthwhile, the Nano-Nose has been tricky to bring to life.
“What we are lacking is artificial dog intelligence,” Mershin said. As of right now, his device has the same sensitivity to odors as a dog but still can’t identify that specific “cancer smell” in individual patients. Still, there may be hope elsewhere.
While Mershin works on his dog A.I., Lee is making strides in her own laboratory. Her team has created a kit similar to that of a home pregnancy test but for the detection of prostate cancer. It’s innovative and convenient, but it’s most important feature is its accuracy.
Ivan Pierre Aguirre/UTEP Communications
“If dogs can do it, we can do it better” was Lee’s mantra as she worked to bring her vision to life. Her kits have 92% accuracy with urine samples, and all because of the research she conducted of a dog’s olfactory system. And to think, it all started with Daisy…
“Half of humanity’s deaths are from chronic diseases and what the dogs are showing is a whole new way of understanding holistic diseases of the system,” Mershin explained. Claire has learned this first-hand with Daisy’s amazing nose, and she’s not the only one who’s benefited.
Durham University/Medical Detection Dogs/London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
Between her stints as a Marine and a mom, Stephanie Herfel was tough as nails. Still, she couldn’t help but feel sad to see her son go overseas with the Air Force. But there was one part of his departure he didn’t tell her about until the last minute.
Stephanie’s son didn’t want her to feel too lonely while he was away, so he arranged a special gift for her. He entered their California home one morning with a smile spreading ear to ear.
Facebook / Stephanie Herfel
He presented her with Sierra, a 9-month-old husky! Stephanie and Sierra became fast friends, and their bond only deepened over the years. Sierra accompanied Stephanie and her husband Jim on a cross-country move to Wisconsin in 2013 without a whimper.
In the back of her mind, Stephanie always knew that Sierra was a very special dog. However, she was about to find out exactly how unique Sierra was — and thank goodness for that…
One afternoon, Stephanie began experiencing some pain and discomfort in her stomach. She figured she’d just eaten something bad and was suffering through some bad food poisoning. When the sensation continued after several days, she visited her doctor.
Stephanie’s doctor brushed off her concerns, saying at worst she was dealing with an ovarian cyst. He sent her home with some pain medication, which would, he thought, set her right as rain.
Once Stephanie returned from the doctor, Sierra perked up. That part wasn’t unusual. At the same time, though, the husky appeared to be more energized than most days. What was up with Sierra?
Sierra joined Stephanie on the couch and immediately thrust her nose into Stephanie’s abdomen. Taken aback, she tried to slide away from the dog. Sierra refused to give up, however, and kept sniffing.
In all her years with Sierra, Stephanie had never seen the husky act like this before. Maybe she’d spilled something on her clothes and hadn’t noticed? Before she had a chance to check, Sierra bolted from the room.
Completely baffled, Stephanie followed the dog’s trail through the house. She found her huddled into a ball in the back of a closet. Clearly, Sierra was trying to express that something was wrong, but what could it be?
YouTube / Lunatic the Husky and April
By this point, Stephanie trusted her dog more than anyone else on Earth. She couldn’t help but think back to her abdominal issues. Perhaps, through some miracle, Sierra knew something that nobody else did.
So Stephanie scheduled another doctor’s visit, and there, Stephanie’s worst fears were realized: tests showed that she had ovarian cancer, which reached a pretty advanced stage! They would have to act fast to save Stephanie’s life.
In addition to chemotherapy, Stephanie underwent a hysterectomy and a spleen removal surgery in 2014. These procedures put a lot of stress on the Herfel family, but at least Stephanie had her trusty dog at her side during her recovery.
To no one’s surprise, Stephanie bounced back! The next year passed without much to write home about, which was fine by her. Stephanie was ready to move onto the next chapter of her life…until Sierra began acting strangely once again.
Just like on the day of Stephanie’s botched doctor visit, Sierra intently smelled her owner’s body and sprinted away. Stephanie ran to the doctor, and sure enough, her cancer had returned!
And so it was Stephanie went through another round of treatment. Doctors once again gave her the all clear. A year later, though, yet again, Sierra went wild and sniffed Stephanie’s abdomen!
For a third time, Sierra correctly diagnosed a tumor inside Stephanie. Treatment. Release. Recovery. Rinse and repeat. Surely, she must’ve thought, this would be the last diagnosis.
Well, as of 2018, she’s been cancer-free ever since! Leaving that dingy hospital bed behind, Stephanie wanted to return to her life and help others suffering from disease. But she couldn’t help but wonder: how did Sierra know?
Doctor David Kushner, Stephanie’s primary oncologist, had a theory. He explained that certain dog breeds can detect chemical traces given off by tumors with an accuracy of up to 98 percent — remember the VOCs from Claire’s story?
Stephanie and Jim were lucky enough to own a canine with this special gift. They decided not to squander their good fortune. They went public about their amazing story, hoping it could help other people who went undiagnosed.
Stephanie also got involved with the Wisconsin Ovarian Cancer Alliance, where she eventually rose to a seat on the board. Sierra is a pretty big local celebrity to everyone in the organization too.
Ultimately, Stephanie said, “Just to give the animals credit that they are pretty smart.” She’d heard stories of other dogs that saved a humans’ lives. Some of them were almost impossible to believe.
Like the story of Amelia Milling, left. She may be deaf, but she’s always up for a challenge. Indeed, the Tennessee native attended the Rochester Institute of Technology in Upstate New York, and constantly pushed herself to do the extreme. She as a big beneficiary of dogs’ intelligence.
John Garay / Facebook
In the summer of 2017, Amelia spent time hiking through and camping in the gorgeous national parks offered out west — nothing too serious, however. In 2018, though, she planned to outdo herself.
On June 19, 2018, Amelia packed her bags—including an emergency tracker device her mother insisted she bring—and headed to Chugach State Park, right, an expanse of rocky mountain and serene rivers about 30 miles east of Anchorage, Alaska.
There, she hiked on her own along winding mountain paths, which, she noted, taxed her far more than she’d expected. As a Southerner, she hadn’t considered there’d still be snow in June. So she changed her plans.
On the second day of her trip, she descended into the Eagle River Valley. Just four miles into the hike, her walking sticks snapped in two. She slid for 300 feet, smashed into a boulder, then fell another 400 feet down a snowy, gradual slope.
The 21-year-old ended up bleeding and broken, looking up at the mountains—a very dramatic moment. Facing death, the only thing she could think of was that her dream vacation was over. Then she saw something terrifying.
A wolf “appeared out of no where,” and watched her in her state of weakness. Hardly able to stand—and with no one around—she stood no chance against a wolf. But then, she noticed something around the animal’s neck that gave her relief.
What she thought was a wolf wore a bone tag that read “Crow Pass Guide,” along with an address. It was then she knew this was no wolf, but a white husky named Nanook. He’d come to rescue her.
Nanook “gave me the motivation to get up and walk,” Amelia said. So she did just that. With the white husky at her side, she walked back to the trail. When night fell, she set up a tent and invited Nanook inside. The dog declined.
But the dog didn’t go anywhere. “I realized he really was sticking with me when he greeted me in the morning when I unzipped my tent,” Amelia said. “He had stayed the entire night next to me.” He offered more help, too.
Along the trail, Amelia and Nanook encountered the Eagle River crossing: a roiling, swirling, and freezing point of the river. Amelia tried twice to cross it. On the second time, she slipped, and the water pulled her under.
After 15 minutes caught in the swell, Amelia bolted back toward the shore. Nanook had grabbed her backpack and pulled her to safety. Afraid of hypothermia, Amelia curled up into her sleeping bag. There, Nanook kept licking her face.
In fact, he licked her face until she remembered the emergency tracker her mother made her take on the hike. When prompted by Nanook, she activated it, sending alerts to Alaska State Troopers.
Several hours later, trained rescue workers descended on her location in a helicopter before scooping the miserable Amelia and her canine companion up. Rescuers brought Amelia to an Anchorage hospital.
Alaska State Troopers / Facebook
When Amelia recounted her story, the troopers were floored. “Nookie was nothing short of a modern-day Lassie hero,” one rescuer, Alaska State Trooper Lt. Eric Olsen, said. Inspired by the pooch, Lieutenant Olsen personally brought the dog home.
There, the trooper met Scott Swift, Nanook’s owner, left. When he heard what his dog had been up to the past 24 hours? “I was definitely pretty floored,” he said. “It sends chills up my spine when I think about it. I certainly didn’t train him to do anything like this.”
Scott continued, “It’s a pretty powerful feeling that this dog had this instinctual ability to want to go help people.” The state of Alaska recognized that, too, and gave Nanook a special honor for his work…
For his heroics, Nanook was made an honorary Alaska State Trooper! The “free spirit” dog would no doubt look good in the uniform. Amelia couldn’t have been happier for her savior.
Amelia recovered in Anchorage and actually continued the dream vacation she once thought would end violently. She did, however, take plenty of time away from hiking to spoil Nanook with lots and lots of treats!
Amelia was extremely lucky to have Nanook come to her rescue. In a wild region like the Alaskan wilderness, having a loyal companion to get you through can be a critical factor for survival. And that is definitely the case when it comes to the brutalist of climates: Siberia.
Four-year-old Karina Chikitova lived in a remote Siberian village in the far east region called The Sakha Republic. There, she shared a small home with her father, mother, grandmother, and her dog, Naida.
Like most kids her age, Karina was energized by a youthful curiosity, that urge to explore and know and understand. Which was why, in July 2014, she followed her father, Rodion, on an expedition into a part of the Siberian wilderness also known as the taiga.
Now this decision was problematic for a few different reasons. The first reason being that the taiga is very much an animal kingdom, dominated by bears, tigers, and wolves with really sharp teeth and an appetite for people.
The second problem with Karina’s decision was that she had not told her grandmother — the person charged with watching her at the time — that she would be following her dad into the bear-infested wilderness.
In fact, she hadn’t even told her dad that she would be following him. So literally no one on the planet knew that this four-year-old girl was diving headstrong into the most dangerous territory on the planet. No person, at least.
Karina did have a companion at her side: Naida, the family dog. That, evidently, was all the comfort the little girl needed, but it was little comfort to her mother, Talina, when she realized her little girl and the dog were both missing.
At first, Talina figured her youngster and the dog followed Rodion to his native village, but Siberia wasn’t exactly flooded with quality LTE, so she couldn’t pull out a cellphone and check. Instead, she waited to hear from her husband.
In the meantime, Karina, followed her father until she somehow managed to lose his trail. Her dad disappeared from view leaving her very much stranded in Siberia with Naida. And the bears. And the wolves.
It took four days of waiting for mother Talina to learn that, no, her daughter was not with her husband in his home village. No stranger to Siberia, she understood this to be a very bad thing, so she alerted authorities.
Radio Free Europe
They deployed a 100-person rescue team to head out into Siberian wilds to find her. The team carried rifles to fend off bears (yeah, there were that many bears in the woods).
Helicopters sliced the sky and rescue workers on foot combed through the trees and tall grass, but their search proved fruitless: Karina was nowhere to be seen. But then, nine days after she went missing, authorities found a clue.
More specifically, a clue walked right up to the authorities and introduced herself. Naida returned to her home — but Karina was not with her! What should’ve been a hopeful moment only seemed to confirm Talina’s worst thoughts.
“If she was to hug her puppy,” Talina said, “we thought, ‘this would have given her a chance to…survive.’ So when her dog came back we thought ‘that’s it.’ Even if she was alive — and chances were slim — now she would have definitely have lost all hope.”
But Naida hadn’t just wandered absentmindedly home. She seemed eager to show the desperate family and the rescue crew something important. The dog headed the group of rescuers and led them into the wilderness…
The dog led authorities to a spot in the wilderness, but none of them saw Karina there. Naida, it seemed, couldn’t find the exact area where she’d left the little girl! Authorities wondered if they were anywhere near her at all.
But three days later — 12 days after Karina first went missing — rescue workers spotted a child-sized footprint on a river bed beside a dog’s paw print. The footprint revealed Karina was barefoot, a crucial detail for investigators.
This told rescue workers that Karina likely was not in the woods. Too many sharp sticks there would’ve been a nightmare on her feet. This narrowed their search down considerably, and the following morning, they executed that new search plan.
And sure enough, just 20 meters from where they started searching, one rescue worker noticed a peculiar lump tucked away in a patch of tall grass. The whole crew rushed over.
They found her nestled in the grass. She was starving, thirsty, exhausted, and covered in mosquito bites, but nevertheless alive. They brought her tea before carrying her to a car and whisking her away to the nearest hospital.
The child spent some time in the hospital, but physicians determined there wouldn’t be any lasting damage. A psychologist examined her mental state and found, shockingly, her mind was in a good place. Talk about mental fortitude.
So how did a four-year-old girl survive in the Siberian wilderness? The little girl told reporters and her family that she survived off wild berries and river water.
Then, of course, there was Naida, the lovable canine that gave her warmth at night and companionship in the daytime. The two reunited for the first time back at home when the hospital released Karina. The meeting did not go as expected.
When Karina first saw her dog, she looked her in the eyes and chided, “why did you leave me?” Those three days of solitude must’ve really affected the little girl. But eventually, she came to understand what the dog did for her.
“It was Naida who rescued me,” Karina said sometime later. “I was really, really scared. But when we were going to sleep I hugged her, and together we were warm.”
Karina’s story gripped everyone watching, and locals even erected a statue of the girl and her pooch to celebrate their strength and will to survive. Not bad for a four-year-old and her dog, huh?
In the end, Karina made a full recovery, and by 2018, attended a ballet boarding school 350 miles away from the village she’d wandered away from all those years ago. Her teachers believed she had the talent to compete in Russia’s competitive ballet scene.
“When she just started her classes, Karina was very reserved,” a boarding school leader said. “She has changed so much and became a lot more open, sociable, friendly and independent. She made many friends who love her lots.”
But even as she danced like an expert and earned friends with her exuberant personality, she would never forget the friend that made it all possible: Naida, the loyal canine.