One woman is trying to bring cancer-detecting dogs to East Tennessee.

Rosana Dropkin moved to Louisville, Tenn., from the Catskill Mountains in New York in hopes of rescuing dogs in shelters to train them to detect different forms of cancer people develop.

"They (dogs) are cheaper. They are more accurate. They are non-invasive," Dropkin said. “Because their sense of smell is so incredibly heightened and so much more than ours, they can detect cancers at stages one and zero."

One study has shown dogs utilize their strong sense of smell to detect various cancer types with up to 98 percent accuracy through a urine sample. Although the research is still in its early phases, dogs can also detect cancer in blood, plasma, saliva and even on someone’s breath.

Trained dogs are able to detect a number of different types of cancer, including breast, lung, ovarian, prostate and skin.

“They are pretty accurate at detecting the sample that has cancer, but it’s a little more complicated than that because in real life, from what I understand, the way dogs can learn to detect cancer is through a reward system,” said Dr. Karim Tazi, who works an oncologist for McLeod Health System. “The accuracy falls down pretty quickly when you have the dogs sniffing multiple negative samples, and you don’t know what to reward them at that point.

“It’s certainly a fascinating story, but there’s obviously a lot more researches and studies to be done to determine if this is going to be even an effective tool for cancer screenings.”

Dropkin said dog trainers have methods to overcome these challenges. 

"We could throw in known cancer samples for the dog to find successfully and be rewarded," she said. "There are ways to keep dogs motivated. That is why it is important for a dog trainer to be involved." 

Dropkin also called cancer-detecting dogs "another tool" to help doctors.

"They're not necessarily going to be overtaking everything (existing cancer-detecting medical machinery)," Dropkin said. "They're just going to be a tool."

A dog detects samples of cancer at a lab.
A dog detects samples of cancer at a lab.

Dropkin explained there are potential benefits of using a dog to detect cancer compared to medical machinery.

“(Your doctor) doesn’t have to go and put you under to do a colonoscopy,” Dropkin said.

Using dogs to detect cancer can also prevent a patient from undergoing expensive surgery or a biopsy, according to Dropkin.

Dropkin began working at the Oak Ridge Kennel Club when she moved to the area in December 2014. She’s East Tennessee’s first Certified Nose Work Instructor after receiving her certifications in June 2011. She has worked with dogs since 2000.

Cancer has personally impacted Dropkin, who has lost a parent and pets to cancer.

"I lost my mom to cancer when I was about 10 years old and cancer runs in my family,” Dropkin said.

Dropkin envisions opening a cancer screening center in East Tennessee utilizing trained dogs to work together with existing medical practices.

“If dogs are able to help us catch it earlier and help save lives, I just don’t see why anybody would be against that,” Dropkin said.