In her work as a funeral celebrant, former TV presenter Melanie Kerr has lost count of how many families have told her their loved one died after a diagnosis of bowel or ovarian cancer "came too late".
It's why Melanie has teamed up with a groundbreaking charitable trust, K9 Medical Detection (K9MD), which is training eight canine "super-sniffers" for the early, non-invasive detection of cancer.
The Dunedin-based charity was founded in 2018 by Pauline Blomfield, a dog obedience trainer who wanted to harness the incredible innate sense of smell that dogs inhibit.
"Every single cancer has a different signature odour that comes from these volatile organic compounds," explains Melanie, the charity's ambassador. "So with dogs and science working together, each of our eight dogs are being trained to detect that specific scent for bowel, prostate and ovarian cancers.
"While humans have five million scent receptors in our noses, dogs have up to 300 million and can sense one to two parts of something per trillion. That's equivalent to detecting one teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic-sized swimming pools of water. The aim is to develop a simple diagnostic test to detect cancer that will work alongside and add value to the existing screening programme. It's not intended to replace anything."
The charity currently works with eight canines – German shepherds Levi and Weta, and Hero the labrador are detecting bowel cancer; Frieda (a long-haired German shepherd), Ace (a springer spaniel) and Magic (a golden retriever) are training to detect prostate cancer; and young puppy Hogan (a golden labrador) and Hunter (a German shepherd) are beginning to learn to sniff out ovarian cancer.
"They're dogs who have come from proven working lines," says Melanie. "And they all live in foster families, so they get picked up for work by the doggy school bus, which takes them into work where they're trained by positive reinforcement."
K9MD works closely with a wide group of health professionals to train its team of dogs to test urine samples in a controlled clinical environment and detect the unique scent given off by cancer. Each training session with the dogs is also recorded and sent overseas to be peer-reviewed.
However, the charity is currently seeking to expand its facilities in Dunedin and is raising money to build a new purpose-built centre.
"It's a world first that's happening right here in New Zealand," says dog-lover Melanie, who used to be a puppy development manager for guide dog services.
For many years, the 51-year-old was also the effervescent host of TVNZ's Good Morning show advertorials, beaming into thousands of homes every weekday morning. In 2015, when news broke that the popular show was going to be axed, Melanie was "heartbroken".
"I was working with the beautiful Jeanette Thomas at the time and there was a really tight-knit crew of people," she says. "My role as the advertorial host was to encourage and guide people – who often were quite nervous selling a product for the first time on the telly.
"Even if it seemed like the most crazy product, like snake oil, I felt that their success was my success. It was an awesome job and it was such a sadness to lose that platform. To many people, like stay-at-home mums or the older generation, the show was like a friend."
At the time, the bubbly mum-of three – who has sons Fletcher, 24, Pierce, 23, and August, 12 – was also one of Auckland's busiest wedding celebrants. Then five years ago, the family moved from Whangaparāoa to Dunedin for a nine-month work stint.
Both she and builder husband Grant, 52, are from Tāneatua, in Eastern Bay of Plenty – they had been best friends since they were five – and had never visited Dunedin before.
"But two weeks after we got here, I said to him, 'We're never leaving – I love this place. I won't be ready to go home at Christmas!'"
Within weeks, they were house hunting and found a dilapidated 1920's three-bedroom home in Māori Hill that was a deceased estate. Promotional material described it as "an opportunity for those looking for a serious project".
Recalls Melanie, "The place was completely overgrown and came with 19 tonnes of hoardings and a family of possums! The previous gentleman, Errol, had lived there for 83 of his 90 years and had lived there for 60 years on his own.
"Bless him, I don't think he'd lifted a broom in that time," she laughs, adding that when he died, Errol left $900,000 to the SPCA.
"Every spare moment we have has been poured into restoring this place. I even cooked for three and a half years on a barbecue outside in the Dunedin winter."
These days, she officiates around three to four funerals a week ("It's such beautiful work and such a privilege") as well as motivational speaking and corporate emceeing.
"I used to be in the supermarket in Auckland and people would come up to me and go, 'Oh, you're that lady off the telly!' And now when I'm buying groceries, people stop me to say, 'Oh, you did my mother's funeral!'
"It's lovely to be a familiar face to people."
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