Carol Witcher rescued her dog when he was seven months old, but never imagined that he would rescue her in return. Over two years ago, her dog, Floyd Henry displayed some curious behavior that made Carol worry that something may be seriously wrong.
“When he sniffed me, he kind of turned back and really pushed into my right breast, real hard,” Carol recalls. “He started sniffing, sniffing, sniffing.” Carol adds, “He pushed real hard for one shot…Then he looked at me straight in the face, and began to paw my right breast. And I thought, ‘This is not good.’” After four days of continuous sniffing, nudging and pawing from her 8-year-old boxer, Carol made plans to see a doctor at the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University.
It turned out that Carol did in fact have breast cancer that would require treatment with chemotherapy, surgery and then radiation. According to breast surgical oncologist at Winship, Dr. Sheryl Gabram, “Her type of cancer presented as an indistinct asymmetry in her breast…I absolutely believe the dog saved Miss Witcher’s life.”
Dr. Gabram and Charlene Bayer PhD, a chemist at Georgia Institute of Technology, are no strangers to this type of phenomena. They have been investigating cancer patients’ breath in a pilot study involving 20 volunteers with normal mammograms compared to 20 newly diagnosed breast cancer patients. They have found that cancer causes the body to release certain organic compounds and the patterns of these compounds can be detected with mass spectrometry, a device that separates out compounds for analysis. It is possible that dogs can smell these compounds but people cannot. Ultimately, Drs. Gabram and Bayer hope that this simple breath test could lead to a means to alert physicians in the office that a patient may have an underlying breast cancer. And in Carol Witcher’s case, quite possibly it did.
As Gabram notes, in the study that Miss Witcher was involved in prior to her treatment, “Our model predicted more than 75 percent of the time correctly which patients did have breast cancer and which ones did not.” This study will be published in early June in the American Surgeon.
ABC News recently covered Carol’s story and discussed previous situations in which the combination of a person’s breath and a dog’s sense of smell led to accurate cancer diagnoses. According to the ABC News story, “In January, a study published in the British journal Gut said that a specially-trained 8-year-old black Labrador retriever named Marine had detected colorectal cancer 91 percent of the time when sniffing patients’ breath, and 97 percent of the time when sniffing stool.” They add that “Dogs have also reportedly sniffed out skin, bladder, lung and ovarian cancers.”
While they might not be able to pinpoint or vocalize what are wrong, canines have demonstrated that they are able to determine that something is wrong.
We will keep you posted on the latest developments in the breath diagnostic work of the team at the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University, Georgia’s only NCI-designated cancer center, and the Georgia Institute of Technology. In the meantime, you can learn more about Carol’s story by checking out the ABC News video here.