My Dog Spotted My Cancer and Saved My Life

The tale of one woman's unique "Lab" test.

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Last fall, I noticed that a mole on my forehead was looking a little darker and bigger. I didn't think much of it; the spot had been there for a few years, and I get regular screenings. So I thought it was probably just more menopausal fun—that is, until my black Lab, Macy, started sniffing at it. The first time she sniffed the spot, she gave me what appeared to be a slightly concerned expression. Clearly, this mole seemed odd to her.

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But about a week later, I noticed the mole looked like it was bleeding. That, coupled with Macy's sniffing, got me to act fast. I scheduled the next available appointment with my dermatologist, who removed the mole and sent it for a biopsy.

At home, while I was waiting for the results, Macy kept sniffing at the site. The test came back positive: I had basal cell carcinoma, a common form of skin cancer. The doctor had me come back in, and he removed significantly more tissue to make sure he'd gotten it all. While I was there, I told him about Macy's behavior, and he said he'd heard similar stories about other people, too.

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When I came home, Macy hopped onto the sofa next to me, sniffed the incision once, and lay down. I immediately felt comforted, and I was even more relieved when the lab report on the tissue they removed came back clean. Macy hasn't sniffed my forehead since. I'm happy I had my own unique "Lab" test, and if she ever focuses on anything else on my body, you can bet that I'm going to have it looked at immediately!

Truth Check: Can Dogs Really Sniff Out Cancer?

The first documented account of a cancer-sniffing dog was in a 1989 case study in the Lancet—and it sounded a lot like Kazimir's. In this case, a woman's dog began sniffing at a new spot on her thigh, even when she was wearing pants. This went on until the owner had the mole removed, and a biopsy showed it was melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer.

But the idea that dogs could contribute to cancer detection didn't grab the medical community's attention until 2004, when a study found that dogs were able to detect bladder cancer in the urine samples of patients with the disease. Since then, research has accumulated, and some scientists believe that dogs can detect the odors of other cancers, too.

Cynthia Otto, D.V.M., Ph.D., of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center in Philadelphia, is one scientist who's trying to learn what, exactly, dogs are smelling. Her lab's canines are trained to sniff out ovarian cancer in white blood cell samples. "The dogs can detect the cancerous ones in 80% to 90% of all cases," she says. "Eventually, we'd like to use the amazing biological ability of dogs to refine a new technology, like an electronic nose that can detect cancer."

This story originally appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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