Karena Kirk-Drain owes her life to her ‘little Bella-Boo’.
Her faithful pet’s sudden behavioural change led to Karena’s breast cancer diagnosis in 2014.
The dog - who was two years old at the time - had no special training. Yet, the clever companion alerted Karena, of Wolsley Road, to a cancerous lump that had spread to her lymph nodes.
The Yorkshire Terrier had always slept in the same spot - behind her owner’s knees, but on 14th October 2013 she wouldn’t settle.
She became increasingly clingy in the following weeks.
Karena, now 53, said: “She started licking the top of my chest. I kept pushing her away and telling her to stop, but she kept on at that same spot.”
After two weeks, Bella, named after Karena’s late-mother, Isabella, was acting so out of character that she took her to the vets.
“She laid across my chest and cried. Something was wrong, but I didn’t know what.
The vet checked her heart, her teeth - there was nothing wrong with Bella.”
But the crying and licking was getting on her owner’s nerves.
“She got clingier, and it was just non-stop.
“And then one day she started bouncing on my chest.
“It really hurt and felt like she’d bruised me, so I checked. There was a lump.”
The ex-shop manager didn’t seek help straight away, and tried to convince herself it was nothing.
But her pet dog just wouldn’t leave her chest alone.
“She was trying to tell me something and the crying on my chest was horrible.”
And so she went to the walk-in centre in February 2014, where she was advised to see a doctor immediately.
From there she was sent to Blackpool Victoria Hospital. They found a cancerous lump in her breast, which had spread to her lymph nodes.
Karena had eight sessions of chemotherapy, which made her very sick as it caused neutropenia - abnormally low white blood cells that left her with a weakened immune system.
She then went for radiotherapy five days a week, for six weeks, at the Rosemere Cancer centre in Preston.
She is now in remission and on long-term medication. She sees an oncologist once a year.
And is thankful to be alive.
But Karena, who moved from Belfast in 1997, said that she owes everything to her dog.
Once the lump was removed, Bella went back to normal.
“I wouldn’t have checked. It’s just something I’ve never done, so I’m convinced that if it wasn’t for Bella I would be dead. She s my little fur angel.”
But when the lump was found she was reluctant to seek help.
I think i knew it was cancer but didn’t want to admit. My mum and dad died in previous years and i just wanted to have a normal christmas and new year. So I just put it to the back of my mind and told myself i can’t have cancer”.
There was a silver lining for Karena and husband, Joe.
They booked their dream holiday to New York in 2016 - and have made a new habit of going on annual trips abroad.
“We were just always focussing on paying the bills. We never travelled much before, but it made me want to put myself first for once.
You think you’re invincible until something happens. It’s really made me appreciate life more.”
The couple have travelled to Dubai and Egypt, and have their first cruise booked for October.
Karena had to stop working due to side effects of her medication.
Her husband is currently being treated at Preston hospital for cancer.
So Karena said her dogs remain her main source of comfort.
Bella is now 11. She now has another dog called Trio, 4, who was a 50th birthday present from Joe.
“The dogs are all that keeps me going. When I close the door they are all I have for company now. My furbabies are my world.”
The first medical trial to see if dogs can be trained to detect cancer began in 2014.
In February 2021 the results of the study found that dogs can detect the most aggressive forms of the disease with high specificity and sensitivity.
The double-blind study by Medical Detection Dogs, showed that dogs correctly identified 71% of positive samples, and correctly ignored 73% of negative samples of prostate cancer.
Samples came from both cancer patients and healthy patients, and as the handlers weren’t told which ones they were given there was no question of bias.
Dogs use an estimated 30% of their brain when they sniff. They can detect faint odours that are not noticeable to humans - really useful for detecting diseases.
Canine expert/author Alexandra Horowitz said in her book, Inside of A Dog: “a dog can detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water: two Olympic-sized pools full.”