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Cancer survivor credits Daisy for early diagnosis

Daisy Daisy

While they are known as man’s best friend, dogs are quickly becoming a great ally in the fight against cancer — and woman's best friend in the bargain.


Jill Johnson, 63, says it was her dog Daisy who discovered her breast cancer. The dachshund-hound mix kept pawing at her breast, eventually leaving a bruise. When Johnson touched the bruise, she noticed a lump that felt like a fibroid. To be on the safe side, she made an appointment with her primary care physician who said the lump could be from the trauma but recommended a mammogram.

Johnson had a mammogram followed by an ultrasound and needle biopsy. The next day she learned the news: she had stage I ductal carcinoma.

Following genetic testing, where Johnson learned she did not have the BRCA gene, she was scheduled for a lumpectomy with Dr. Jennifer McAlister, a fellowship-trained breast surgeon with Pardee UNC Health Care.

“Dr. McAlister is simply amazing,” Johnson says. “She spent more than an hour with me explaining everything – it was like a cancer 101 class. The surgery went very well. I didn’t have any pain. I didn’t need to take an Advil or anything.”

Since the procedure was a day surgery, Johnson returned home four hours later. After a month, she began radiation five days a week for four weeks.

She says she “breezed” through radiation treatment and had few side effects, only slight discoloration and itching, but none of the fatigue many people experience.

“They told me if I stayed active, that’s the best way to combat fatigue,” she says. “I have two dogs I walk regularly, I’m a massage therapist and do three to four massages a day, and I exercise on my own.”

Due to her healthy lifestyle, Johnson was able to work throughout her treatment, taking only a week off after the lumpectomy.

Following her last radiation treatment on Aug. 26, Johnson says she feels amazing. “Dr. McAlister said I might need two to three weeks off, but as long as I didn’t have pain, I could continue working,” she says

Although a dog’s ability to detect cancer was first covered in the medical journal The Lancet in 1989, it wasn’t until recent years that scientists have begun studying dogs’ incredible sense of smell and how they can detect subtle odors known to be associated with many cancers.

Cancer cells produce and release specific odor signatures in a person’s body and bodily secretions. Dogs are known to have incredible sense of smell - with three-hundred million sensory receptors vs. five million in humans. They are able to detect even the slightest odors. Depending on the type of cancer, dogs are able to detect odor changes due to cancer in a person's skin, breath, urine and sweat.

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