Her Dog Detected Her Breast Cancer

Why was her greyhound continuously shoved his nose into her underarm? She soon realized he was trying to tell her something.

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- Posted on Mar 24, 2020

Illustration of Jimmy the greyhound

What on earth is Jimmy doing?

I raised my head from the pillow. My husband, Graham, and I had been lying in bed that June morning at our home in Kinross, Scotland, when our greyhound, Jimmy, shoved his wet nose into my armpit, sniffing around as if it was his job.

“Stop—that tickles!” I said, pushing him away.

But Jimmy was relentless. Sniff, sniff. What had gotten into him?

Our sweet Jimmy was usually so polite and docile. That’s what first drew me to him two years ago at the Greyhound Rescue, where I continued to volunteer every Thursday. Many of the former racing greyhounds were nervous and unsure of how to be pets when they first came in. Their lives in the racing world were difficult—they were muzzled and kept in cages up to 21 hours a day, raced twice a week, then dumped by their owners when they were no longer profitable, at about three or four years of age. They tugged on their leashes, paced their enclosures, barked loudly and shied away from new people.

But not Jimmy. I first spotted him resting quietly in his crate in the break room one day, shortly after he came in. I turned to one of the senior volunteers. “Why is he in here?”

“Jimmy’s so mild that we’re keeping him away from the others,” she said.

He’s adorable. I thought. A skinny, black-and-white beanpole of a pup. He was so peaceful, regal even. And so well-mannered!

I bent down to pet his sweet face. His tail wagged as he gently licked my hand. If I could adopt a dog, I’d want one just like Jimmy, I thought.

Of course, with our elderly cat at home, it just wasn’t possible. I resigned myself to seeing him every week on my shift, at least until he found a home. After I’d walked and played with all the dogs, I would come into the break room to spend extra time with him. He’d curl up next to me on the sofa, and I’d pet his long, athletic body. There was just something special about him.

For the next three months, I watched greyhounds come and go. The quickest to get adopted were always the brindle or blue-colored dogs, probably because they looked so posh. Not the common black-and-white ones like Jimmy. Plus, Jimmy had a head tremor, which made his head constantly shake. It didn’t hurt him, but it put off potential adopters. If only they could see past this, I thought. He’s such a good dog!

Then our cat passed away, and there was no longer anything preventing us from adopting Jimmy ourselves. Graham and I knew it was time to bring him home, and that was that. Jimmy had been every bit as wonderful a member of the family these past two years as he’d been during our weekly visits at the shelter.

But why was he behaving so oddly now? “Jimmy, no!” I said, removing his snout from my armpit yet again and pushing him away. As I did so, I brushed up against something with my thumb. Was that…? No, it couldn’t be….

I threw off the covers and jumped out of bed, reaching for the spot again. I felt it and froze. A lump in my left breast. How had I never noticed it before?

I made an appointment with my doctor for the next day.

“It’s probably just a cyst,” she said and referred me to a specialist. I hoped against hope that she was right but, several tests later, got the news I’d been dreading.

“You have aggressive triple negative breast cancer,” the specialist said. She explained that the mass was six and a half centimeters, and the cancer was spreading to my lymph nodes. I’d need chemo to shrink the tumor, surgery to remove it and radiotherapy to reduce the likelihood of its return. Treatment would have to start immediately.

Distraught, Graham and I began scheduling a countless rotation of appointments and grappling with terrifying uncertainty. The first 24 hours of chemo were some of the worst of my life. I was plagued by absolutely wretched nausea and trouble breathing. Two weeks later, my hair began falling out. Whole clumps came out, right into my hands. Through it all—the chemo, the surgery, the follow-up treatments— my ever-faithful Jimmy was right by my side. He’d find me wherever I was in the house and curl up next to me, nuzzling into me.

“You know I’m poorly, don’t you?” I asked him one day. Jimmy put his head in my lap and looked at me as if to say, “I’m always here for you.”

I’ve been cancer-free for two years now, though I’m still waiting to meet the five-year all-clear marker. I believe that without Jimmy and his determination to show me the lump, I wouldn’t be here today.

I don’t know how he knew to warn me. Maybe dogs are just better at sensing these things than people are. All I know for sure is that my rescue dog—the one no one else wanted, the one I almost missed out on adopting—wound up rescuing me.

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