Can You Smell Cancer? Tips to Manage Odor From Cancer Treatment

If you’re facing a cancer diagnosis, you may have a list of questions. But “does cancer have a smell?” is likely not on your list. It may be strange to think that cancer has an odor. So, does it? Keep reading to find out.

Key takeaways:
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    Certain diseases – like an infection or cancer – produce volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can be detected in bodily fluids, skin, and breath.
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    People generally cannot smell the VOCs – or chemical markers – given off by cancer. But, according to research, specially-trained dogs can sniff out VOCs from cancer.
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    Although using dogs to detect early-stage cancer in humans is not a standard procedure, its clinical benefit is still being researched.
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    Certain cancer treatments can cause a change in your body odor, especially in your bodily fluids. Your sense of smell may also be affected by chemotherapy.
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    Tips like maintaining your oral hygiene, staying well-hydrated, and discussing your concerns about body odor with your healthcare team may help you cope with these changes.

Does cancer have a “smell”?

This may sound like a strange question because, generally, the human nose cannot “smell” cancer. But research suggests that trained dogs can sniff out some types of cancer in humans.

It’s no secret that dogs have a keen sense of smell – a million times more heightened than humans. Dogs have been recruited and trained to detect specific odors like drugs, explosives, and weapons. Canines also help in the search for missing people. So, scientists set out to understand if dogs might be able to help with the early detection of cancer.

You may think of the smell of gas or paint thinner when you hear the term volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are chemicals emitted from other products or the breakdown of other chemical compounds. It turns out certain diseases in the human body also give off a wide range of VOCs, which can be detected in the breath, skin, blood, and urine.

What does the research show?

In a study, trained dogs successfully identified ovarian cancer from blood samples of known cancer patients. In the same study, the dogs also detected patients with ovarian cancer recurrence at 3 and 6 months after treatment.

When researchers provided a trained dog with urine samples, the dog was able to correctly distinguish the urine of cervical cancer patients from healthy individuals.

A 2021 study found that a specifically trained dog accurately detected urine and breath samples from lung cancer patients. The dog correctly identified cancer in 40 out of 41 cancer samples. But, the study does not mention if the dog could tell healthy samples apart from cancer samples.

Based on the available research, early cancer detection by dog sniffing can be a life-saving and cost-effective method. However, VOC testing is currently not an established practice in the fight against cancer. More research is needed to prove the benefit of VOC testing in clinical practice.

Can cancer treatment give you a bad odor?

You may not be able to smell the VOCs given off by cancer. But, if you are receiving cancer treatment, you may sense body odor changes, especially in your bodily fluids. You may also become more sensitive to smells.

For example, nausea and vomiting are well-known side effects of chemotherapy, a cancer treatment. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can also cause dry mouth and dehydration. People often get sores in their mouths, making it painful and difficult to maintain oral hygiene. Sometimes, mouth sores become infected. These side effects of chemotherapy can lead to bad breath.

Some chemotherapy drugs may cause your urine to have a strong odor. What’s more, chemotherapy may damage the cells in your bladder or kidneys. This makes you more likely to get a urinary tract infection (UTI), especially if you’re dehydrated. You may notice foul-smelling urine if you have a UTI. Some people report a fishy smell in their urine at times.

A weak immune system from chemotherapy is a risk factor for vaginal yeast infection. You may be at increased risk of a yeast infection if you take antibiotics during chemotherapy. While vaginal yeast infections are generally odorless, some people who are especially sensitive to smell report a yeast-like odor.

Certain symptoms associated with cancer may give off an odor. For example, a tumor that breaks through the skin and forms a wound is called an ulcerating or fungating tumor. Ulcerating tumors are often painful, tend to ooze, and have a noticeable foul odor.

Changes in taste and smell are side effects of chemotherapy. You may become more sensitive to smells as you undergo cancer treatment. For example, you may notice things smell differently or have a more pungent scent.

How to manage odor from cancer treatment

Cancer treatment can cause an unpleasant odor, but you don’t have to isolate yourself. Instead, try these tips:

  • Keep up with your oral hygiene to help you combat bad breath. Brush your teeth and tongue with a soft-bristle toothbrush or cotton swabs. Talk to your healthcare provider about using a mouth rinse to help clean your mouth and soothe discomfort.
  • Stay well hydrated, take frequent sips of water, and try sucking on ice chips to keep your mouth moist. Talk to your cancer care team about treatment for vomiting.
  • If you notice a strong urine odor while receiving chemotherapy, drink plenty of fluids to keep yourself hydrated. Good hydration not only minimizes the strong urine odor, but it also helps to flush toxins out of the body. It’s important to talk to your healthcare provider about changes in your urine, especially if you have signs of a UTI, like pain when you urinate, or cloudy, foul-smelling urine.
  • Symptoms of vaginal yeast infection include a thick, white vaginal discharge that looks like cottage cheese, pain or burning during sex, and vaginal itching. There are many over-the-counter (OTC) treatments for yeast infections. But it’s always a good idea to discuss these symptoms with your oncologist to determine the best treatment options and find ways to reduce your risk of another yeast infection.
  • In addition to pain, the odor of an ulcerating tumor may cause distress and embarrassment. But some things can help. A first step is to talk to your healthcare provider about treatment options, like taking antibiotics and removing the dead tissue and bacteria in the wound. Applying an odor-reducing dressing over the wound is also helpful in minimizing the smell.
  • Finding ways to manage hypersensitivity to smells while undergoing cancer treatment can be challenging. If certain odors are offensive, try to limit your exposure by staying away or wearing a mask. Eating foods cold or at room temperature may reduce the food’s taste and smell. If a beverage smells offensive, try covering the cup with a lid and drinking through a straw.

While cancer is not 100% preventable, an early cancer diagnosis is known to save lives and increase survival. Still, there is a compelling need to improve cancer screening methods. So far, studies have shown that specially-trained dogs have the potential to detect different types of cancer using various odor samples, but more research is needed.

Dealing with body odor changes while receiving cancer treatment may be embarrassing, but there are ways to manage these side effects.


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