A Siberian Husky in Wisconsin takes the term “man’s best friend” to a whole new level. A 52-year-old woman’s dog detected her ovarian cancer not once, but three separate times, ultimately saving her life.
“I owe my life to that dog. She’s really been a godsend to me. She has never been wrong,” Stephanie Herfel said.
Sierra the Husky was placed in Herfel’s care at 9 months old in 2011 when her son went overseas. Herfel, explained what happened two years later:
“She put her nose on my lower belly and sniffed so intently that I thought I spilled something on my clothes. She did it a second and then a third time. After the third time, Sierra went and hid. I mean hid!”
Despite pain in her abdomen, an emergency room physician told Herfel it was an ovarian cyst and sent her home with a script for narcotic pain medication to ease the discomfort. Sierra, however, reacted quite differently to whatever it was that was causing the pain in Herfel’s abdomen: she hid herself in the very back of a closet, rolled up in a ball.
Herfel called Sierra’s reaction “spooky” and proceeded to make an appointment with a gynecologist “in a matter of weeks.” After bloodwork and an ultrasound, Herfel was told on 11-11-2013 that she had stage 3C ovarian cancer.
In stage 3, ovarian cancer has spread to the lymph nodes and large deposits of cancer cells are likely found outside of the spleen and the liver, in addition to being found in one or both of the ovaries and the lining of the abdomen.
Herfel underwent a full hysterectomy and lost her spleen as well. She received chemotherapy until April of 2014.
In 2015, and then again in 2016, Sierra hid. Both times Herfel discovered that her cancer had returned.
David Kushner, Herfel’s oncologist, stressed that Sierra’s ability to sense the cancer was not a fluke. Dogs with the ability to sense cancer have an accuracy rate of around 98%.
“It’s almost like the dog knows something is going on and is scared. The dog didn’t want to be near her,” said Ashley Wagner, executive director of the Wisconsin Ovarian Cancer Alliance.
Sierra’s innate ability to sense cancer was not limited to only that of her owner. When a friend with a known case of ovarian cancer visited Herfel, Sierra reacted the exact same way. More recently, Sierra’s senses went into overdrive when a worker ready to start a remodeling job showed up to Herfel’s home. Herfel and her husband contacted the person’s boss with the news about their dog’s unusual habit.
Ovarian cancer is stubborn. One in 78 women develop the disease at some point during their lives, according to the American Cancer Society, and a shocking 70% of them see the cancer return. With Sierra by her side, Herfel is already beating the odds as a 5-year survivor. Herfel plans to write a book about Sierra and her amazing ability.
“I just feel like my story can let people think about their animals and think, ‘Wow, my animal did this when I got diagnosed.’ Just to give the animals credit that they are pretty smart.”