In 2013, Stephanie Herfel moved from California to Wisconsin and, soon after, she noticed a surprising weight gain. Her diet and exercise hadn’t changed, yet she put on 60 pounds. When she started experiencing belly pain that doubled her over, she decided to visit an emergency room for answers.
“It was so bad that my yoga pants even hurt,” Herfel, 53, of Madison, told TODAY. “They told me I had an ovarian cyst.”
Doctors prescribed pain medication for what they called a benign cyst, she said, and she started feeling better.
A few months passed and she took a vacation. When she returned, she noticed unusual behavior from her Husky, Sierra.
“Sierra put her nose on my belly and pushed very intently and I just thought she missed me,” Herfel explained. “On the third time, I called her on it.”
Then Sierra hid. After an hour of searching, Herfel found her curled up into a tiny ball with only her tail peeking out. When the good girl looked up, her owner was worried.
“They say dogs don’t cry, but I don’t know if it was fear or what, but the fur all around her eyes was just soaking wet and she had the biggest eyebrow cringe I’ve ever seen,” she said.
Herfel felt her pup was trying to tell her something was wrong, so she scheduled an appointment with a gynecologist for a second opinion about her cyst. A month later, the diagnosis came back as stage 3 ovarian cancer, which is sometimes called the “silent killer” because people often do not have symptoms or they mimic other illnesses.
According to the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, symptoms include:
- Abdominal bloating or swelling
- Feeling full after eating
- Feeling the need to urinate frequently
- Back pain
- Pain during sex
- Changes in bowel habits
- Unexplained bleeding
After the diagnosis, Herfel felt Sierra saved her life. She thought her doctors might laugh, but she told her oncologist that she thought her dog had discovered the cancer.
“I was strangely impressed with him, he was very engaging,” she said, adding that he even looked for papers about it. “He said, ‘You know I looked into this ... it's not breed specific, but if dogs can pick up the sense, they are 98% accurate.’”
A study published this year in the journal Experimental Biology found that dogs were about 97% accurate at detecting cancer.
For Herfel, treatment included a 10-hour surgery to remove the tumor, after which she was told she was cancer-free.
But, about 18 months later, she went away for the Fourth of July weekend and, on the second day of the trip, Sierra repeated the strange behavior and hid again.
“Everyone I was there with just said, ‘You know it’s probably a new place,’” Herfel explained. “But I knew it my gut it was not nothing.”
A CT scan revealed that Herfel's cancer had spread to her liver this time.
“She just changed from this really sweet pet to one that is a life-saving member of the family that is a little like a human,” she said.
After another treatment, Herfel spent 33 months enjoying a normal dog-owner bond with Sierra. Then, in March of this year, Sierra hid again and Herfel knew not to doubt the dog.
Herfel received a PET scan and doctors confirmed that she had recurring ovarian cancer, at stage 3.
“I said, ‘Hey you know I have my own pet scan at home,’” Herfel said. “You’ve got to be humorous and laugh.”
She had radiation while waiting for chemotherapy in the fall. Before starting the new treatment, she enjoyed two vacations and time with her husband of two years, who she met when she was in remission.
While Herfel was receiving radiation treatments, she said Sierra refused to kiss her and kept hiding. She suspected it was because the dog could still smell the cancer and felt anxious about it.
Once Herfel started chemotherapy, Sierra went back to cuddling with her owner. The dog's positive reaction has given her hope that treatment may be working.
“It is chillingly wonderful ... I’m like, ‘OK it’s working,’” Herfel said. “She was that accurate over the course of this journey.”
Herfel has had the ovarian cancer on and off for six years, which is stage 3 metastatic and recurrent. She credits Sierra for giving her longer life and said she's lucky to share the pup's story.
“I just feel honored to be her spokesperson because I really believe she’s the star,” she said. “She’s given me an opportunity at longevity.”
Herfel wants to raise awareness about ovarian cancer, but also about how life with cancer doesn't have to only be sadness and pain.
“I understand that this [cancer] is really bad, but I am going to use all the means I can to make my life joyful," she said.