A woman who survived skin cancer is thanking her dog for detecting it and saving her life.
Lauren Gauthier, 42, an attorney from Amherst, N.Y., runs the animal rescue organization Magic’s Mission. When a hunter in South Carolina surrendered a Treeing Walker Coonhound with an infected eye that needed removal, Gauthier became smitten, naming the now 2-year-old Victoria.
In the spring of 2017, while hanging out at home, Victoria became fixated on Gauthier’s face, zeroing in on her owner’s right nostril. “I had what I thought was a pimple there and she was always fascinated by it, even touching it with her nose,” Gauthier tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Even when the red dot faded away, Victoria would stare at the area. “It weirded me out,” says Gauthier.
When the dot returned three weeks later, Victoria again obsessively stared at it, so Gauthier decided to visit her doctor.
A biopsy revealed the dot was basal cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer that affects 4 million people per year, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Gauthier’s doctor recommended Mohs surgery, a procedure that involves removing the infected skin layer by layer. In Gauthier’s case, he would remove a flap of skin from the top portion of her nose and use it to cover the hole cancer had left behind.
After spending time on Instagram following basal cell carcinoma patients to mentally prep for surgery, Gauthier, who shared she frequented tanning beds when she was younger, went public with her own photos. “I’ve always believed you should try to make something positive out of your challenges so I wanted to discourage tanning bed use and help others undergoing Mohs surgery in their faces,” she says.
Four months post-surgery, Gauthier is on the mend. “My nostril looks a bit like it’s being lifted by a fish hook but if I want to fix that, I have to wait a year to fully heal,” she says, adding that she’s extra cautious in the sun due to her heightened risk for developing other skin cancers.
Scientists have long theorized that dogs can detect cancer. In 2001, the Lancet medical journal published findings of several notable cases: a patient whose dog “constantly” sniffed a mole on her leg which was later diagnosed as malignant melanoma; a man who developed what he thought was eczema who attracted a pet Labrador that obsessively sniffed the area through his pants. The “eczema” was diagnosed as basal cell carcinoma. In both cases, after the cancer was treated, the dogs lost interest in the areas.
Scientists have determined that dogs have an extraordinary sense of smell. “Let’s suppose they’re just 10,000 times better,” James Walker, former director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University, said on the PBS science program “Nova.” “If you make the analogy to vision, what you and I can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away and still see as well.” That’s in part because dogs have 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to humans, who possess 6 million. And, according to the “Nova” program, dogs’ ability to analyze such smells is 40 times greater than that of people.
Sheryl Gabram-Mendola, a surgical oncologist at the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University has her own theory about why dogs are attracted to cancer patients. In 2011, she told ABC News that people with cancer release organic compounds only noticeable to dogs. Gabram-Mendola developed a test to prove that canines can detect more than 300 molecules in the breath.
“Our model predicted in over 75 percent of the time correctly which patients did have breast cancer and which ones did not,” she said. As ABC noted, her work has been echoed in the scientific journal Gut, which published findings of a black Labrador that detected colorectal cancer in people’s breath with a 91 percent success rate.
Per the American Kennel Club, Treeing Walking Coonhounds like Victoria are skilled hunters originally bred to trap raccoons and bigger animals for hunters.
To Gauthier, they’re also lifesavers. “Victoria and I always had a close bond — we like taking selfies on the couch — and she’s been such a great support system,” she says. “I’m super grateful to her, and love her to pieces.”
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