Wisconsin woman's dog sniffs out her ovarian cancer at least 3 times

Updated: November 19, 2019 06:55 PM

An ovarian cancer survivor from Madison, Wisconsin is crediting her dog’s nose for saving her life at least three times, according to ABC affiliate WKOW.


In 2013, Stephanie Herfel started experiencing symptoms of ovarian cancer, including abdominal pain and bloating. When she went to the emergency room, doctors told her she had a benign ovarian cyst. Herfel was sent home with some pain medication.

Shortly after her trip to the emergency room, Herfel says her husky, Sierra, started acting strangely.

“She came up and put her nose on my belly, which I dismissed,” said Herfel.

Herfel said Sierra did it multiple times, but she kept ignoring her until she found her dog hidden in a back closet.

“She was curled in a little ball with her nose under her tail and her face was completely wet, her eyebrows scrunched,” said Herfel.

Herfel says she took a “leap of faith” and went to the doctor for another opinion.

“They told me I have [Stage 3] ovarian cancer,” said Herfel.

Herfel underwent surgery and six months of treatment before heading into remission. She says she was cancer-free until 2015 when she noticed Sierra sniffing and hiding again.

“I knew in my gut something was wrong,” Herfel said.

Herfel went to get checked again and found out that her ovarian cancer had returned in her liver. That’s when she says she realized her dog had a special gift.

“Just going through my head, ‘Sierra was telling me, Sierra was telling me,'” said Herfel.

That’s when Herfel started having conversations about Sierra with her oncologist at UW Carbone Cancer Center, Dr. David Kushner.

“We have heard people say this sort of story before,” said Dr. Kushner. “But I think [Sierra] is most unique … because she acted so differently and focused directly on [Herfel’s] belly and targeted the workup.”

According to a study by Experimental Biology, a dog’s smell is 10,000 times more accurate than humans. When a group of trained dogs was put to the test to distinguish between a normal blood sample and a cancer patient’s blood sample, they were 97% accurate.

Sierra is not trained but has been able to detect Stephanie’s cancer at least three times.

“Even though [Herfel] is feeling perfectly fine, Sierra knows,” said Dr. Kushner.

Herfel claims that Sierra is detecting her ovarian cancer recurrences so early that oncologists can’t see it on a scan yet.

While there is no scientific evidence about how Sierra can sniff out Herfel’s ovarian cancer, Herfel remains confident in her dog’s unique ability.

“I believe she saved my life and she continues to do so,” said Herfel.

Six years since her original diagnosis, Herfel wants other pet owners to pay close attention to their loving animals.

“Pay attention to your pet and see if they’re communicating with you in a different way and you might notice some incredible things,” said Herfel.

Herfel is a part of the Wisconsin Ovarian Cancer Alliance (WOCA), which helps raise awareness about the deadly disease. She says the symptoms for ovarian cancer can be subtle, like bloating, loss of appetite, feeling full fast and having trouble with your bladder.

To learn more about the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer, visit WOCA’s website.

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