Doctors Dismissed This Woman’s Fears – But Her Husky Knew Better And Kept Sniffing Around

As an ex-marine, Stephanie Herfel, of Madison, Wisconsin, has faced challenges. She also knows the importance of comradeship in those tough moments. But in perhaps her greatest battle, it was her pet husky that stood up to be Herfel’s savior. It was a telling example of woman’s best friend delivering on that title.

There was certainly no indication that the pooch, named Sierra, was anything more than a regular dog when she first arrived with her new owner. Herfel took the Siberian husky on after her son, Sierra’s original owner, was posted overseas as a part of his duties with the U.S. Air Force. Sierra was just nine months old at the time.

That was 2011. A year later, Sierra and her owner upped sticks and moved from California, where Herfel was from, to the harsher climate of Wisconsin. Herfel made her new home in the town of Madison, the state’s capital. In winter, the temperature can dip as low as 13°F. But it would be fair to assume a Siberian husky wouldn’t feel too out of place in such conditions.

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But just a year into her new life in the American Midwest, Herfel started to experience some health issues. Mainly, she was experiencing discomfort in her midriff. Not wanting to take any risks, Herfel booked a trip to the emergency room. It was there that a doctor allayed her fears, diagnosing an ovarian cyst.

Herfel left the hospital relieved by the doctor’s words, and took home some pain medication to help. That was that, and Herfel sought about getting on with things. However, her beloved Sierra began acting strangely, which immediately roused the suspicions of her owner.

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“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,” Herfel reported. It certainly constituted unusual canine behavior, even for dogs as alert as the Siberian husky is known to be.

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The breed has been formally recognized in the United States by the American Kennel Club since 1930. Yet the variety’s fame was cemented five years prior with the event which became known as the 1925 Serum Run traversing Alaska. A total of 150 Siberian huskies were involved in pulling sleds across the state in order to deliver a diphtheria cure to the town, which was facing an epidemic.

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The Great Race of Mercy, as the event is also known, became so well known that Balto, the lead sled dog for the final run into the town of Nome, became something of a canine celebrity. There is a statue of Balto in New York’s Central Park, while a 1995 animated film of the same name has Kevin Bacon voicing the eponymous character.

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Indeed, huskies have made numerous appearances in popular culture over the years. Most recently, the cult book and TV series Game of Thrones, despite featuring fictional direwolves, not huskies, has led to an increase in the breed’s popularity as a pet due to their similarity to the animals used in the show. Yet Sierra, Herfel’s faithful pooch, was about to prove herself every bit as capable a guardian as any of the famed Game of Thrones canines.

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That’s because Sierra understood, through her keen sense of smell, that something was not right with her owner. It was a case of a dog acting as a health warning system, a known phenomenon. In 2018, for example, The Guardian newspaper in the U.K. ran an article in which it reported that, in 2015, two German shepherds had been trained by Italian researchers to smell urine samples for evidence of prostate cancer. “The dogs were correct in 90 percent of cases, while the standard PSA blood test is not considered reliable enough for screening,” the article reported.

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That same article in The Guardian also told of dogs being used in the detection of a number of other diseases, including malaria, diabetes, Parkinson’s, and breast cancer. Dogs being used as medical screeners is a concept that Maria Goodavage, a journalist and editor, has explored in her book Doctor Dogs: How Our Best Friends Are Becoming Our Best Medicine.

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“They’re detecting these diseases that until recently we didn’t even realize had a scent,” Goodavage said. “They can pick up many things around the world, like different kinds of cancers. So far, they’ve detected breast, ovarian, lung, stomach, liver, prostate and skin – a bunch,” the author told NBC’s TV show TODAY.

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In terms of her loyalty to Herfel, Sierra had already proven to be a special dog. She may enjoy all those normal canine pursuits of playing outdoors, going for walks, and chasing after a ball, but she is also incredibly protective when it comes to her owner. For example, she insists on lying in a position which is between Herfel and any outside access point.

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But on this occasion, Sierra’s behavior was different. “To see her become so afraid was spooky in its own right. So I made an appointment with a gynecologist,” Herfel later told newspaper USA Today. And it was a very good thing that she did. “In a matter of weeks and {after} some blood work with an ultrasound, on 11-11-13 I was sitting in the gynecology oncologist room in shock that I had cancer,” Herfel revealed.

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Of course, to receive such a diagnosis came as a crushing blow to Herfel. She had not long before believed the problem to be only a harmless cyst. Unfortunately, misdiagnosis with ovarian cancer, the form of the disease Herfel was suffering with, is not uncommon. Very often the symptoms can be read as something else, and are not unlike normal, day-to-day health issues that many women may experience.

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Ashley Wagner, from the Wisconsin Ovarian Cancer Alliance, encourages women to remember the acronym BEAT in terms of watching out for ovarian cancer, especially because it so easily misdiagnosed. BEAT stands for bloating, eating difficulties and abdominal pain. The letter ‘t’ represents ‘tinkle, tinkle, tinkle’, signifying the frequent trips to the bathroom that the disease may bring on.

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It was a scary diagnosis for Herfel. Only four other types of cancer kill more women in the U.S. every year than the ovarian variety, according to American Cancer Society (ACS) figures. It is also the most common form of cancer affecting the reproductive system. And it is estimated that, in 2018, just over 14,000 women will have died as a result of the disease in the U.S, again according to the ACS.

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But the fact is, without her trusty pet husky, Herfel would never have even known that she was seriously ill. And with ovarian cancer, like all other forms of the disease, an early diagnosis is of paramount importance. Despite the news, Herfel was actually fortunate, because her dog had sniffed out the disease before it had spread to other parts of her body.

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Five-year survival chances for ovarian cancer, like most forms of the disease, is dramatically affected by early diagnosis. According to the ACS once more, that survival rate stands at just 47 percent for all types of ovarian cancer. However, in cases where there is an early diagnosis and the cancer has not spread, that rises to 92 percent.

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It was an incredible feat performed by Sierra. “It’s almost like the dog knows something is going on and is scared. The dog didn’t want to be near her,” Wagner said in relation to the amazing events preceding Herfel’s diagnosis. Indeed, according to Herfel, Sierra had reacted to the cancer by cowering in the back of her closet.

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Despite that vital intervention on the part of her pet pooch, it was still an incredibly serious situation for Herfel. The specialists diagnosed stage 3C ovarian cancer. Herfel was operated on, having a full hysterectomy. She also had her spleen removed as a result. She received chemotherapy treatment for nearly six months too.

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By April 2014 her treatment was complete. Herfel, with more than just a little help from her four-legged friend, had successfully fought off the cancer in her ovaries. As a reward, Herfel treated herself to a trip to Disneyland in her home state of California. She was thankful to be alive, and determined to make the most of the chance she had been afforded.

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And of course she was eternally grateful to Sierra, whose strange behavior, including cowering while curled up in a ball, had alerted her owner to the seriousness of her abdominal discomfort. It was a remarkable piece of detection on behalf of the dog, but once again by no means unique among examples of astute canine intuition.

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David Kushner was Herfel’s primary oncologist. And Kushner had heard of cases before in which a pet dog had been instrumental in detecting the presence of cancer. For that reason, Sierra’s detection had not simply been a piece of luck, or a coincidence. Kushner confirmed to Herfel that huskies had displayed this kind of ability before. And as Goodavage explores in her book, they were not the only breed capable of such amazing feats of detection.

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In fact, various breeds of dogs have been proven to have a 98 percent accuracy rate in terms of detecting ovarian cancer in patients, and indeed other types of the disease too, according to Kushner. As incredible as Sierra’s ability was, she was once again far from unique in her talent.

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But remarkably, in 2015, Sierra repeated the trick with her behavior. When she again began acting strangely and hid from Herfel, the dog’s owner feared the worst, and her concerns were realized when she was diagnosed with having cancer for a second time. This time the disease had spread to her liver.

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Once again Herfel fought off the disease. But then a year later, in 2016, Sierra once again began acting in a way that made her owner’s heart sink. Herfel returned to the specialist, and sure enough, the cancer had come back, this time in the region of her pelvis. Undaunted, the ex-marine fought off the disease for a third time.

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In 2018 Herfel took to Facebook to detail the incredible intervention of her pet pooch. “Sierra smelled my cancer not only the first time by smelling my belly and hiding, but hid on my two reoccurrences where my scan showed an area of suspicion and I had to wait 3-4 months for another scan to confirm – she was right!” Herfel wrote.

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And it wasn’t just in Herfel where Sierra was able to detect instances of cancer. When a friend of Herfel’s visited, Sierra again reacted in the way that her owner had come to recognize was the dog’s cancer warning. This time, however, the friend was known to be an ovarian cancer sufferer.

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On another occasion, Herfel was having some work done on her home, and Sierra again began acting in the manner which her owner had begun to identify with the existence of a serious medical problem. This time the object of the dog’s concern was a new worker in the house. Herfel contacted that worker’s boss just to highlight that there could be an issue.

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It is a remarkable talent that Sierra has. And the dog’s ability is not lost on Herfel for a moment.
“I owe my life to that dog,” she remarked in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper, not at all being melodramatic under the circumstances. “She’s really been a godsend to me. She has never been wrong,” Herfel added.

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As for Herfel, she is now active in the Wisconsin Ovarian Cancer Alliance organization of which Ashley Wagner is the executive director. In fact, Herfel has even become a member of the board of directors. Helping combat the disease and aiding those diagnosed has now become a major part of her life.

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The 53-year-old former proposal and grant writer spends her days fundraising for the group, which supports research projects aimed at combating the disease and assisting in its early detection. Indeed, teal – the color associated with awareness programs surrounding the disease, akin to pink with breast cancer – has become a significant color in Herfel’s life. Other women with the disease have become her “teal sisters”.

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Herfel is a tough cookie – her five-year service in the U.S. Marines attests to that – and a cancer survivor. But she is aware that she is one of the lucky ones. She remains on a course of regular treatment, this time in the form of chemotherapy which is given orally. Yet Sierra’s owner admits that she is unsure, and slightly concerned, whether or not her pet would still be able to detect the cancer with this particular treatment being administered.

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It has been an extremely difficult few years for Herfel. But despite the tough breaks that life has delivered her, she remains upbeat about her recurring cancer. “There are things that are coming out new every day. That’s how I live my life. I’m going to do the best thing I can do at the time until the next best thing comes along,” she told USA Today in November 2018.

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And the California native has certainly been living life to the full. After getting the all-clear from her cancer for a third time, she met a man online. In 2017, Herfel and her partner, Jim, got married. Not only is she a cancer survivor, but she is a newlywed, as well as the owner of a remarkable canine, of course.

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And no doubt having Sierra around is a huge relief. Her trusty companion has been her savior on not one but three separate occasions. Herfel realizes Sierra will not be around forever, but she appreciates her every day that she is. The owner even plans to write a book about her amazing pooch.

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As for Sierra, she still reacts badly when Herfel has a hospital visit. After completing her appointments as the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center, Herfel has to change her clothes, as she knows the smell will upset her husky. Herfel’s other dog, Gizmo, is there to help relax Sierra in such circumstances.

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“Dogs are offering us so much hope to detect so many things that we thought there wasn’t a lot of hope for,” author Maria Goodavage told TODAY. “I love that we are finally realizing their potential. It just makes them even more our best friends,” she added.

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There is little doubt that Herfel would concur with that assertion. “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,” Herfel concluded. Under the circumstances, it’s hard to disagree.

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