Imagine being able to give a sample of your saliva, urine — or even your breath — to get tested for cancer. Believe it or not, an early cancer detection test that’s non-invasive, inexpensive, and safe could soon be a reality.

How would this be possible? Through the power of a dog’s nose.

Research has found that as cancer cells develop, they release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — a smelly substance that, while subtle, can be detected by dogs. Just as we may smell garlic on someone’s breath, a dog can smell the emissions of cancer cells in a person’s body.

That’s because a dog’s nose has over 300 million scent receptors, compared to humans who have only 5 million. So while humans can smell a delicious cake, dogs can smell the individual ingredients of the cake — butter, sugar, flour, vanilla, salt, and more.

The InSitu Foundation and its partner researchers — including a group at University of California, Davis — are pioneers in the study of dogs’ ability to detect cancer. Founder and CEO Dina Zaphiris has been training dogs for over 50 years. Over the last several years, her Chico-based foundation developed medical protocols for the selection, handling, and training of our canine friends for early cancer detection.

Training dogs to sniff out cancer would be a remarkable achievement because, despite our advances in cancer research and treatment, we haven’t found a reliable way to detect cancer early. Doctors encourage women to get mammograms to check for breast cancer starting at age 40, but that can be long after the cancer’s developed. Men can get a PSA test to detect prostate cancer, but that test can be woefully inaccurate. Catching cancer early greatly increases the chance for successful treatment and for saving lives. Thanks to the hard work of dogs, alongside their trainers and medical researchers, that detection system could be available around the globe.

Want to help out? The InSitu Foundation is always looking for dogs to train and families to adopt them, as well as dog trainers and medical professionals with whom to partner.

Click to explore ways to get involved with the InSitu Foundation and learn more on how they’re training dogs to sniff out cancer and save lives.