She doesn’t believe in the healing power of crystals. She doesn’t even check her horoscope in the newspaper. (Well, hardly ever.)
Herfel is just a normal American woman who loves country music concerts and enjoys a cocktail every now and again. She’s a former Marine and a Midwesterner, and she’ll proudly tell you she’s “53 years young.”
And that her dog sniffed out her ovarian cancer.
She gets that you’re skeptical. She knows it’s a universally accepted truth that people can be downright daffy when it comes to their dogs and what they can do.
On the other hand, you might be among a growing number of people, including scientists, academics, and doctors, who believe that canine snouts can detect cancers far earlier than physicians are able to now—and, as a result, hold the key to saving hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of lives.
Millions? But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Yes, this is a story about numbers, but the first number is simply one: one divorced mom, one dog and her nose, one stroke of great, good fortune.
It begins in 2010, when Herfel’s son adopts a puppy soon after enlisting in the Air Force. But months later, when he is ordered to deploy to England, he has to drop the high-spirited husky, Sierra, off with his mom in San Diego. Herfel lays down one condition: The dog stays with her. “You have unlimited visitation, but she needs a stable home. It’s not fair to her to keep passing her back and forth.” That was the beginning of Sierra and Stephanie.
The following year, Herfel and her new sidekick move to Madison, Wisconsin. “I was a single woman dating in California, only to find materialistic people,” she says. “I was ready for a change.”
While trying to make friends and date and establish a life in her new city, Herfel notices that she is gaining weight. A lot of weight. She has healthy eating habits, and has always hovered around 145 pounds. Yet the numbers on her scale are marching in one direction. At 160, she thinks, What the hell? and tries to exercise more. She’s shocked when she hits 180. And a few months later, the flickering red digits settle in at a new high of 210. “I cried—a lot,” she says.
A doctor she sees about the weight gain orders blood tests, which come back normal. She takes to wearing stretchy yoga pants all day because she can’t button her jeans. There are also so many urinary tract infections that the doctor barely bothers with appointments: She just calls his office, and he prescribes antibiotics over the phone. “He chalked it up to having sex,” she says. “But I wasn’t having sex, so I knew that wasn’t it.”
In September 2013, Herfel sits down at her desk, still wearing her trusty yoga pants, and feels a pain radiating from her belly button to her pelvic bone. Later that day, it gets worse, until she’s nearly doubled over. Now she is worried. She goes to the emergency room. Eight hours and a CT scan later, she learns she has an ovarian cyst. Nothing to fret about, she’s told. A doctor prescribes her something for the pain and says that she should feel better in a few days.