Humans May be Able to Smell Cancer- A New Way to Diagnose?

How it all started

Joy Milne is a retired nurse who helped diagnose her husband with Parkinson’s disease. 12 years before the official diagnosis, Joy noticed a change in her husband. However, it wasn’t her medical background that helped her make the claim it may be Parkinson’s; it was her sense of smell.

Joy said she noticed a change in the way her husband’s skin smelled. Later it was discovered that what she was detecting was the distinct smell of sweat from the sebaceous glands, which can be increased by the disease.

Joy’s story is unique because its the only documented case of using human’s sense of smell for disease diagnosis. This documentation is so important because she guessed her husband’s illness significantly earlier than when he received the official clinical diagnosis.

Past research with smell

There have been studies in the past which utilized canine’s sense of smell to determine illness. However, since dogs generally have a far superior sense of smell than humans, it wasn’t thought that investigating human’s sense of smell would be worthwhile.

You can read some of the studies concerning diagnosis with smell here.

Joy’s story is clearly unique, and her gift has great potential in the medical field. What if Joy could detect other types of illnesses through smell like rare diseases or cancers?

In August 2018, Joy was flown from her home in Scotland to San Francisco to test her ability.

The experiment

The experiment was simple. Joy was presented with an assortment of medical masks, some of which had been worn by cancer patients, and some of which were brand new. Joy correctly identified every single mask.

However, was she sensing the cancer, or simply that some of the masks had come in contact with human breath? Another experiment was needed.

The second experiment

The next day Joy was presented with 10 masks. 5 had been worn by healthy individuals, and 5 had been worn by cancer patients. Joy identified that 3 of the cancer masks did indeed belong to a cancer patient. Her correct identification of those three masks indicate potential in the use of smell for diagnosis.

More research is clearly needed, but this potential new form of diagnosis is something that may have a radical impact on the lives of future cancer patients. Some believe our sense of smell may be refined enough to even identify different types of cancers. But further study is the only way to find out.

In the meantime

We all know research can be slow, so in the meantime, what can we do with this new information?

We can pay more attention. Even if we don’t have an exquisite super smell sense like Joy, her story says something important. If we pay closer attention to our daily appearance, smell, actions, and speech, we may be able to detect a change in one of those things much sooner. Likewise, we may be able to do so for a loved one.

So be observant, and if you suspect something is different, off, or disconcerting, it may be time to make an appointment with your doctor.

Stay on the lookout for more research concerning smell and cancer diagnosis- hopefully, it’s coming soon! You can also read Joy’s full story about her husband’s Parkinson’s diagnosis here and more background about her experience smelling cancer here.


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