Can You Detect Skin Cancer by Smell?

Updated on November 16, 2017
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty uses her MS in Preventive Medicine/Health Psych. and TKM as a contractor in research/treatment for public & private health agencies.

Diagnostic Odors

Many cancers can be detected by smell or olfactory sensitivity in

  • Some humans,
  • Trained medical sniffer/detection dogs, and
  • A small medical device called the "electronic nose."

By 2017, researchers have found 17 different medical conditions that can be found through smell, especially by the electronic device.1

Human Bodies and Associated Odors

Detecting cancers of the human body by the odors they emit makes sense. This is because our bodies give off different odors based on many variables and sickness is just one of them.

For example, certain foods especially change the odor of human breath, sweat, urine, and defecation. Medications can also change those odors. In the early 21st century, we find that cancers change this odors as well. This is because all cells in the body ingest nutrients and give off wastes. Cancerous cells give off wastes as well, but of a different odor based on chemical composition, than do healthy cells.1,2,3,5,6

The forearm naturally emits a different odor than does the back. Cancer in each of these areas also emits different chemical "odors."
The forearm naturally emits a different odor than does the back. Cancer in each of these areas also emits different chemical "odors." | Source

My prediction is that an electronic olfactory diagnosis instrument can become the go-to method for early detection of melanoma, the most deadly of skin cancers. The instrument could possibly be adjusted to become a smartphone app like "The Epic Health App" (epichealth.io/) to monitor blood glucose level, body temperature, blood pressure, respiration rate, blood oxygen saturation, and insulin resistance by placing a finger on the screen of an android phone.

Skin cancers can be deadly, especially sun-related melanoma; but new methods of detection are helping to arrest them - including detection by odor.
Skin cancers can be deadly, especially sun-related melanoma; but new methods of detection are helping to arrest them - including detection by odor. | Source

The Field of Olfactory Diagnosis Grows

I have witnessed a few physicians somehow determine the possibility of cancer by using their sense of smell.

These few individuals seem sensitive to the odors that cell wastes and chemicals in and around areas of skin cancer exude. Hard evidence of such odors and the ability to detect them was released in a paper issued on August 21, 2008, in ScienceDaily.

The Monell Chemical Senses Center5 was the site of this research work. Researchers have since applied the results of the use of human senses to such diverse detection of the conditions of areas cancers, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, pediatric conditions, job-related safety, pollution, and even homeland security issues.

In 1968, the company formed to study taste, smell and "chemo-sensory irritation."5 The last phenomenon is likely what was occurring with physicians detect cancer through an odor. These doctors did not all seem to "smell" cancer, but rather, seemed to experience an alarm of some sort in their brains in response to chemical irritants.

Odors and Basal Cell Carcinoma

Basal Cell Carcinoma or BSC is the most commonly occurring skin cancer from among six types of skin cancer known in the 21st century. The Mayo Clinic asserts that BSC is the most easily treatable of the skin cancers and usually appears as one of two phenomena:

  1. A bump or bumps of a pearly or waxy nature on the neck, ears, or face, or
  2. One or more lesions that look like a scar and appear flat and either flesh-colored or brown and appear on the chest or back.

Anything that looks like either of these should be seen by a doctor immediately.

In related research, the American Chemical Society worked with US National Institutes of Health funding and found that chemicals (volatile organic compounds or VOCs) are emitted by BSC into the area above the cancerous skin area.

Volatile in this scenario does not mean explosive. "Volatile" means readily evaporating at room temperature. The chemicals are exuded in different proportions by BSC and by non-cancerous skin and this difference is the marker for BSC.

Some physicians can detect the difference between the odors mentioned above by smell or chemo-sensory irritant.

Back in the 1990s, I first thought that a medical device of some sort would be helpful in this task - like the Breathalyzer for detecting alcohol fumes. In 2016, it was reported that a scientist in Israel, Hossam Haick1,3, began working on just such a device in 2006 and named it the “electronic nose.” I expect it to show up soon as a smartphone app.

Dr. Haick was one of nearly 60 physicians who studied 1,400 patients, finding that a number of cancers can be detected by smell; or odor-related chemicals, in the case of his device.

Cancers Detected via Olfactory Methods

  1. Bladder
  2. Colorectal: The feces smear and the colonoscopy methods of cancer detection may become obsolete.
  3. Head and Neck: Dr. Haick's detection device would come in very useful in dental practices, where head and neck examinations are standard.
  4. Gastric: Stomach and Pancreas: The medical detection device can also detect diabetes.
  5. Kidney
  6. Lung
  7. Ovarian: Early detection is vital in these cases.
  8. Prostrate

Further Comments on the Odors of Skin Cancer

The accumulating VOC profiles for cancerous skin and other body areas may need to be plotted against baseline readings for a number of factors, perhaps in addition to the already-used gender, age, and body site.

We may find that they must also include these, among others:

  1. Blood types
  2. Presence of chronic conditions such as diabetes
  3. Racial subdivisions and ethnicity
  4. Usual diet

Gallagher, et.al.1 completed a study to look at forearm and back areas of healthy males and females ages 19 - 79 with gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. They found about 100 chemical compounds exuded by skin.

Researchers determined a "normal" skin profile and a different normal profile for each of

  1. Forearm skin and
  2. Back skin.

In other words, healthy forearm of skin puts out different chemicals in different quantities than does healthy back skin.

Advancing age resulted in only an increase of the amount of certain chemicals emitted, and not the type of chemicals. Older patients, therefore, may possibly be more easily diagnosed by odors for cancers.

Skin Cancer, Moles, and Warts

Research released in July of 2008 by the University of Rochester7 showed that cancerous moles exude a protein that non-cancerous moles do not emit. I think that that this protein could be connected with emissions of VOCs—Does this protein, in fact, exude an odor or odor-like chemical? It may benefit the programs of both the "smell" studies and "protein" studies to join forces and find out.

The protein, IMP-3 is present in both harmless and cancerous moles, but is present in significantly greater quantities in cancerous moles. Warts may or may not exhibit similar properties.

Training Schools for Cancer-Sniffing Dogs

Trained dogs have been found to detect a number of cancers through their specialized canine olfactory system.6 Lung cancer seems to be their toughest challenge, suggesting that the electronic nose would be better used for finding lung cancers in the early stages. Medical detection dogs are trained at the following facilities"

In Situ Foundation; Chico, California. This foundation trains dogs to sniff out cancer in at least 11 US States, Canada, South America, and Europe. https://dogsdetectcancer.org/bio-dog-certified-trainers/

Medical Detection Dogs: 3 Millfield Greenway Business Park, Winslow Road, Great Horwood, Milton Keynes MK17 0NP, United Kingdom

Penn Vet Working Dog Center. 3401 Grays Ferry Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19146, USA

show route and directions
A markerIn Situ Foundation P.O Box 3040 Chico, CA 95927 -
Chico, CA 95927, USA
get directions

B markerPenn Vet Working Dog Center. -
3401 Grays Ferry Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19146, USA
get directions

C markerMedical Detection Dogs -
Great Horwood, Milton Keynes MK17 0NY, UK
get directions

Sources

  1. Gallagher, M., PhD; reporting at the 235th Meeting of the American Chemical Society, December 2016. Diagnosis and Classification of 17 Diseases from 1404 Subjects via Pattern Analysis of Exhaled Molecules. Nakhleh, M.K., et.al. http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acsnano.6b04930 Retrieved November 9, 2017.
  2. Handwerk, B. Your Breath Does More Than Repulse—It Can Also Tell Doctors Whether You Have Cancer. The Smithsonian Magazine. December 21, 2016.
    www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/your-bad-breath-doesnt-just-repulseit-can-also-reveal-disease-180961527 Retrieved November 9, 2017.
  3. June, L. Scientists Can Now Detect 17 Different Diseases by Smell. The Outline. December 28, 2016. theoutline.com/post/798/scientists-can-now-detect-17-diseases-by-smell Retrieved November 9, 2017.
  4. Mayo Clinic. Basal Cell Carcinoma/Diagnosis and Treatment. www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/basal-cell-carcinoma/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20354193 Retrieved November 9, 2017.
  5. Monell Chemical Senses Center (August 21, 2008). Scent Of Skin Cancer Discovered. ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2008/08/080820162842.htm Retrieved September 6, 2008.
  6. Stahl, S. Researchers: Dogs Able To Detect Cancers Through Smell. October 4, 2017. philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2017/10/04/dogs-cancers-smell/ Retrieved November 9, 2017.
  7. University of Rochester Medical Center (July 20, 2008). Protein Found To Identify Malignant Melanoma. ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2008/07/080717110231.htm Retrieved September 6, 2008.

© 2008 Patty Inglish

Comments & Experiences

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    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image
      Author

      Patty Inglish 4 years ago from North America

      That is incredible and interesting information, and thanks for sharing it with us. I hope you continue to improve in health.

    • profile image

      DANIEL NORMAN HARRIS 4 years ago

      I have recently had nine warts removed after having two Basal Cell Carcinomas removed. In spite of two showers and a Spa Bath before leaving the Sauna I was asked to leave two pubs due to an experience of body odour by other persons. I have had skin cancers removed without getting into this trouble but warts sprayed with liquid nitrogen exude slime for a long time further on so you don't want to shake hands.

    • profile image

      mcals71 5 years ago

      Cancer has taken my hubby and my dad, so I had to read this hub and found it very interesting and informative. I knew about dogs being able to do that, but not humans. Thanks for sharing. I learned something new today.

    • profile image

      cancerguru 5 years ago from Kentucky

      A great hub with excellent descriptions and new information about smell. Thanks for Hub.

    • dusy7969 profile image

      dusy7969 6 years ago from San Diego, California

      Great and wonderful hub.An excellent article which is well and properly tools with lots of information which is so enriched with experiences.Thanks a lot for this Sharing.

    • Ez Kay profile image

      Ez Kay 6 years ago

      Great and wonderful article which is published by one of the experienced writers on hub pages. Thanks for sharing this piece of info.

    • sunchild28 profile image

      sunchild28 6 years ago from Nigeria

      Great hub you have in here patty,which properly researched on and provided the necessary information.

    • crystolite profile image

      Emma 6 years ago from Houston TX

      An excellent article which is well and properly equipped with lots of information which is so enriched with experiences.

    • goprisca profile image

      goprisca 6 years ago from Bangalore

      Very informative and useful Hub

    • mesotheliomatips profile image

      mesotheliomatips 7 years ago from California,USA

      Thank you, patty, for your good advice.

    • profile image

      joe 7 years ago

      There is a group of people that seem to have a condition that bystanders can sense. It does sound a bit far fetched, but some bystanders will have a sort of allergic reaction to them. Sneezing, coughing, runny nose or tearing eyes. I know, because some people have this reaction to me!! This group calls themselves "People are Alergic To Me" (PATM) for short. No Joke....

      http://www.medhelp.org/posts/Allergy/People-are-al...

      The troubling thing is that I was diagnosed with Melanoma last week, and I have no idea how far it has gone yet.

      I am wondring if this could be a sign that I have a more advanced stage cancer?

    • profile image

      Sneezy123 7 years ago

      There is a group of people that seem to have a condition that bystanders can sense. It does sound a bit far fetched, but some bystanders will have a sort of allergic reaction to them. Sneezing, coughing, runny nose or tearing eyes. I know, because some people have this reaction to me!! This group calls themselves "People are Alergic To Me" (PATM) for short. No Joke....

      http://www.medhelp.org/posts/Allergy/People-are-al...

      The troubling thing is that I was diagnosed with Melanoma last week, and I have no idea how far it has gone yet.

      I am wondring if this could be a sign that I have a more advanced stage cancer?

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      I can smell cancer too.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 7 years ago from the short journey

      Have heard of detecting skin cancers by odor, but the info sebaceous gland carcinoma is new and important. Thank you very much.

    • praveenamuthu profile image

      praveenamuthu 8 years ago

      Very interesting and informative hub.

      https://hubpages.com/health/Early-detection-of-can...

    • profile image

      Debbie 8 years ago

      I will do that and keep you posted.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image
      Author

      Patty Inglish 8 years ago from North America

      I think that some people CAN smell cancer and that you should contact the nearest university research hospital and talk to them about it. They can use your help and find out how many others can smell as you do.

    • profile image

      Debbie 8 years ago

      I have discovered either I am crazy or I have the ability to smell cancer. Not sure how to possibly put this to good use, as it is not a very approachable subject. I am a hair stylist and have experienced, more than once, the 'smell' on my clients. It smells like fritos corn chips. Some clients have had their cancer 'removed' and the smell is gone for a time. And when the smell comes back it turns out so had the cancer. I have experienced the smell of a cancer patient in late stages and that is a totally different smell to me. So far I have heard about dogs smelling cancer, and wondering if some people may have the "gift" as well.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image
      Author

      Patty Inglish 8 years ago from North America

      Thanks for reading and commenting! This phenomenon can be used to good advantage n future.

    • perfumelover profile image

      perfumelover 8 years ago

      this is very intriguing! i've heard about animals sensing cancer via smell, mentioned in some BBC articles (tabloid-like, if you ask me) a few years ago. it's very cool to hear about this again! great referencing on your hub. think with a topic like this, that kind of attention to detail is essential. great work!

    • profile image

      myislam 8 years ago

      you did a virtue by making this post.

      http://skincarefree.blogspot.com/

    • Lgali profile image

      Lgali 9 years ago

      Interesting hub.

    • Automotive Gps profile image

      Automotive Gps 9 years ago from USA

      Interesting hub.

      I don't know before about smelling skin cancer.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image
      Author

      Patty Inglish 9 years ago from North America

      viralprospector - Thanks for your insigts; I did not know about the Aldara. I do so hope and pray that you have health and long life. You're an inspiration,

      I have seen a lot of commentary since writing this Hub about dogs smelling cancer, so it may be true and they are likely more sensitve than humnans and some devices in sense of smell, just as they can hear sounds humans cannot.

      It is true that we must keepo our yes peeled for changes.

      Thanks to eveyone for their brillilant comments and insights!

    • C.S.Alexis profile image

      C.S.Alexis 9 years ago from NW Indiana

      I also saw a TV show about dogs and research on this subject. Found it interesting and good to see that research is being done on the subject. Thanks for sharing with details. Good Article. C.S. Alexis

    • 2patricias profile image

      2patricias 9 years ago from Sussex by the Sea

      The possibility of smelling skin cancer is interesting, but the key point for all of us is that we should keep an eye on our skin for changes.

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 9 years ago from India

      I watched a programme recently on Animal Planet - the same one, probably? Wouldn't it be great if dogs were trained specially for this so that cancer can be detected in the very early stages?

    • profile image

      Vivek Khandelwal  9 years ago

      I heard once..Dogs have the ability to smell Skin Cancer..

      Is that right ?

      Saw it on discovery i guess..

    • viralprospector profile image

      viralprospector 9 years ago from DFW Texas

      Patty;

      I can comment on skin cancer since I am currently treating a lot of basal cell skin cnacer now. I have had about 80 stitches this summer that could have been much less a problem if I would have handled this quickly as you wisely suggest here.

      There is a chemo therapy cream, called Aldara, that has worked wonders for me, but it is again a bad situation that I should have handled years ago. It saved me another 100 stitches or so, I'd guess. It seemed like somehting like a mosquito bite, and the open wound is about 3X2 inches.

      As to smelling it, that is interesting. Thanks for the good research and comments.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image
      Author

      Patty Inglish 9 years ago from North America

      Thanks Storyterrerus! - The new methods of detection are making it ever so much more likely to find the cancer and treat it early. It's encouraging!

    • Storytellersrus profile image

      Barbara 9 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      As busy as I am, I had to read this Hub! Thanks for letting us know we should pay attention.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image
      Author

      Patty Inglish 9 years ago from North America

      I thnk very few humans can do anything like this and I am glad I was able to see it and hear about it. The idea for using dogs is a great one! I had nt heard that, but know that animals can often sense disease in humans. What a world! :)

    • funride profile image

      Ricardo Nunes 9 years ago from Portugal

      Great hub Patty, such important information should be spread all over (I try to stumble it but I wasn´t allowed). Maybe this way this kind of techniques could be use by many more physicians around the world.

      I heard somewhere that it was possible to detect some types of cancer with the help of dogs who would smell those chemicals which indicate the presence of the disease. But I never thought it was possible that human could smell it.

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