What does cancer smell like?

The sooner cancer is detected and treated, the better your prospects. Researchers have been trying to find ways to detect cancer early. However, early detection can be challenging because some cancers don’t start showing symptoms until very late. Researchers are currently exploring the possibility of detecting the smell of cancer to help make a diagnosis faster.

This article will review why cancer smells and how to detect it. It will also discuss the impact of changes in body odor caused by cancer treatment.


Dogs are known to have an incredible sense of smell. Humans have recruited dogs for years because of their enhanced sense of smell, which can sniff out drugs and weapons, and help find missing people.

Researchers are now wondering whether dogs can also smell cancer in humans.

Studies have shown that dogs are significantly better at smelling volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than humans. Volatile organic compounds are by-products of certain biological processes in the body. Things like infection, inflammation and even cancer produce volatile organic compounds that can be sensed in breath or urine.

In these studies, dogs were trained to detect the smell of cancer, often using breath or urine samples. Although it is not clear which VOCs in cancer can be smelled by dogs, they have successfully detected cancer.

In one study, dogs were given urine and breath samples. Dogs who obtained urine and breath samples were able to correctly detect cancer in 98 percent of the samples. Dogs that got only urine samples were able to correctly identify 87 percent of the cancer samples, while dogs that got only breath samples were able to correctly identify cancer in 78 percent of the samples.

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It’s important to note, however, that the study did not mention whether the dog found VOCs in people who didn’t have cancer.

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What Causes Cancer Smell

Scientists are still trying to determine exactly what causes cancer to smell. Cancer is essentially a process in which cells don’t divide properly (cells multiply too fast and don’t die when they should). This abnormal process can lead to the death of otherwise healthy cells and changes in the body that may produce VOCs.

These VOCs can be detected in breath and urine samples and other body fluids of cancer patients. One study found that many VOCs are present at varying levels in various cancers, including breast, prostate, lung, and bladder cancers.

In this study, cancer patients were found to have higher levels of certain VOCs than people without cancer.

It is important to note that there is no standard VOC testing procedure nor proven clinical benefit to conduct such testing.

One of the volatile organic compounds that can cause odors are polyamines. This compound is normally produced at higher levels in rapidly dividing cells, and cancer cells do just that. Polyamines can be detected in the blood and urine of cancer patients.

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If the cancer comes close to the skin surface and causes a sore block to form, this can become a breeding ground for bacteria. The resulting infection can then cause a foul odor.

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Healing smell

The average person cannot detect the smell of cancer, but they may notice changes in the smell of bodily fluids while undergoing cancer treatment.

The sense of smell may be more sensitive to people undergoing cancer treatment. Strong odors, such as those in food, are especially annoying. Sometimes people are so sensitive to smells that they get sick easily.


Side effects of chemotherapy can cause changes in the sense of taste and smell. This is a common side effect of many chemotherapy drugs and regimens used to treat many types of cancer.

Because chemotherapy is administered all over the body, it produces a variety of odors that can be emitted through the skin, urine, feces, or sweat.


Some side effects of chemotherapy and other cancer treatments are unavoidable. However, there are steps you can take to help you stay as comfortable as possible.

If you have a sensitive sense of smell and may cause nausea, avoiding scents that you are sensitive to may help. To manage odors from food, the following methods may be helpful:

  • Try foods that can be eaten raw.
  • Do not eat in a room that is too hot.
  • Eat cool foods.
  • Avoid foods with strong smells, such as fish or onions.
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For those with cancer who have ulcerative tumors that can become infected and cause foul odors, it may be helpful to discuss ways to reduce odor with your cancer care team. Medications, such as antibiotics, can sometimes be given to help reduce odor.

Maintaining proper skin hygiene can help you avoid infection and therefore foul odors.

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VOCs may emit odors associated with the development of cancer in the body that may be detected by specially trained dogs. However, this is not the standard of care and more research needs to be done. However, humans typically cannot detect these odors, and scientists are working on ways to measure these VOCs in urine and breath samples.

Chemotherapy used to treat cancer can also cause changes in the smell of someone’s urine, feces, and sweat.

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It may be strange to think that cancer can smell, but it’s true. Research is underway to determine the possibility that dogs are being used to sniff out cancer at an early stage.

If you have cancer and are concerned about any smell changes in your body, be sure to consult your cancer care team.