By Kelley King
I have been fortunate to live a life surrounded by some special dogs. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, my yellow labs — Rio and Bravo — were resting at my feet as I talked to a kind nurse who called me and said: “It’s cancer. We need to talk about this."
When I put down the phone, my dogs looked up at me. They didn’t wag their tails. They didn’t mutter to go outside and play. They were quiet, searching my face for what to do next. We sat together for a long time that day, looking into each other’s eyes, trying to figure out how a small lump in my right breast could change everything so quickly.
Like all the dogs I have known, Rio and Bravo have supported me and helped me move along in life.
As a toddler, Frodo, the Great Pyrenees, and Troy, the German shepherd, were my first brothers. These patient boys lay on the floor as I learned to crawl and walk, they played make believe with me and they sought shelter when my human brother and I got too rowdy.
I still remember the day the vet came to our house to euthanize Frodo because he was old, wobbly and had developed cancer in his shoulder. I refused to be there when he took his final breaths. Saying goodbye was too difficult.
As I grew older, my parents wisely found two dogs to match my brother’s and my energy and dispositions. First, Bobby, a Shetland sheepdog, came into our lives. A registered dog named Running Against the Wind after a Bob Seger song, Bobby used to bound behind my brother and me as we ran through pastures near our house or settle at our feet as we sheltered inside from the hot summer sun. He was spirited but patient. A true gentleman.
Then, came Hannah, a Doberman pinscher. The moment I met that tiny red dot of a dog, my heart melted. She was obstinate. She grew into a chunky brute of a beast. And, she loved my family with all her might.
I was fortunate (most days unfortunate) to go through 4-H dog obedience training with Hannah. She was the most challenging animal I have ever worked with. One year, we were demonstrating obedience commands off leash at the county fair. It didn’t go well. The minute Hannah realized she was free from her leash, she bolted from me. It took my father’s booming baritone voice from the crowd to get her to stop running before she made it to the nearest hamburger stand.
Hannah was there when my future husband met my family for the first time. True to form, she bumped into him, nudging his leg constantly with her giant head, almost challenging him to get away from me. One year while I was in college, I returned to my parent’s home to do some laundry and stock up on junk food. After finishing the laundry, I started loading the car to return to school. When I had everything settled, I looked in the back seat as Hannah crawled in, ready to go with me.
My eyes still get glassy when I think about that dog. She lived to be a not-so-elegant old lady. The vet also was called for her when she got old and sick. I was away at college when she died. The pain of her death has never dulled.
Now, I live with two bright, rambunctious yellow labs. The Yellow Wonder Twins are my best friends. They are there in the morning, wiggling and looking forward to the day ahead. They are at my feet at night, tired from their exploits. And, they are two of the most devoted, humorous sidekicks I have ever had.
When I broke my ankle while hiking with them a few summers ago, I fell to the ground in pain and panic. The minute it happened, Bravo lay down beside me and Rio sat at my head. As I yelled for help, Rio barked … loudly. When the paramedics and sheriff’s deputies arrived, they began making plans to send my dogs to the animal shelter until my husband could retrieve them. I refused to receive oxygen or be loaded into the ambulance until a deputy promised he and a ranger would wait on the mountain with my dogs so my husband could get them there.
Rio and Bravo were at the door waiting for me when I hobbled home on crutches and spent quality time recuperating on the couch after that injury. They are with me today as I type this, patiently waiting for a trip up the backyard bluff.
When I started chemotherapy in December, the first question I asked an oncology nurse was: “Will I smell different, terrible to my dogs? That would kill me." The nurse thought for a minute and responded: “Yes. You will smell different. Dogs smell so much more than we do. You will have a different scent."
In my mind, I knew my beloved dogs would sense a change in me after chemo. A new stink thanks to the toxic cocktail of Carboplatin, Taxotere and Herceptin wending through my body.
I hoped they would remember and love me anyway. They did.
When I returned home from that first chemo treatment, Rio was standing at the door, wagging her tail … Smiling her yellow dog smile. She sniffed at me and licked my face. I did my best to choke back the tears but they fell anyway.
To me, and I suspect to many people, dogs are a reminder that there is good in this strange world. As I go through what cancer has planned for me, I’m not surprised to learn scientists are working with dogs to harness their ability to smell and provide early detection of cancer developing in people.
Dogs can smell in parts per trillion. For example, if one cc — less than a drop — of blood is diluted into 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools, a dog can detect the blood. Physicians say cancer has an odor, one that can be smelled by humans in patient’s breath as it reaches latter stages. Dogs can recognize the smell of many cancers and in the earliest stages.
The In-Situ Foundation in Malibu, Calif. trains dogs to use scent detection as a diagnostic screening for early cancer in people. The Foundation is seeking FDA approval for a canine medical scent detection kit for cancer; publishing research on canine medical scent detection; and, is working to open canine scent detection centers around the country and world.
This is fascinating to me. I found my cancer one night when I couldn’t sleep. I was walking into the kitchen to get a drink of water and something itched in my chest. I felt a lump. The rest is history.
Now, I wonder if my dogs have known for years what I have not. They are keen to smell my breath when I blow on them. I always assumed they were being patient with me as we started to play. Perhaps, they knew.
It’s hard to say with my dogs. They are awesome creatures. I treasure the time I have with them. I look forward to the day when a brilliant dog makes a difference in a cancer patient’s life like my special dogs have done for me.
Kelley King is a freelance writer. She lives in Superior, CO. with her husband and two dogs. She publishes a blog about her life with breast cancer at CancerDiva.net.