BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. -- A tumor the size of a bullet grew in Curtis Young's head, pressing on his brain. In six months, he could have been paralyzed.
In a year, dead.
It was 2005, and Young had no idea it was there. But his dog, an 11-pound miniature pinscher acted like something was wrong. Sabrina would scratch, bite, dig at the back of his head when he laid on a couch. It was annoying. He thought it might be dandruff.
He talked to his doctor, and ultimately an MRI scan confirmed he had cancer.
Surgery removed the tumor and Young's ability to hear in his right ear. He's been a Brevard County firefighter for about 25 years, and damage from his illness was supposed to prevent him from fighting fires. But after a year of light duty, he passed the physical test and returned to work.
One of Young's doctors agreed Sabrina's persistence saved his life. And that was just one of the times she helped him.
"She's my angel," he said.
Young and Sabrina met at the Daytona Flea Market. He and his ex-wife saw her in a cage. He inquired and played around with a couple dogs. One didn't like him, but Sabrina followed him around. They walked away, wandering the flea market, and his ex-wife insisted that would be his dog. They went back and bought her.
"She's the daughter that I never had," he said. "She is my daughter. She's me."
About two weeks ago, Sabrina was nipping at a spot on his back.
"Basically, if I wasn't wearing a shirt, she would come up behind me and start licking it," Young said.
He pushed her away but she was insistent. He could feel a bump but didn't think much of it. Maybe it was an ingrown hair.
When he got it checked out, a biopsy confirmed it was basal cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer.
"As far as special, she's beyond special," he said. "There's nothing that comes between me and her. She comes before anything and everything."
A veterinarian who treats Sabrina, Dr. Kimberly Jennings, doesn't think the dog's cancer-sniffing ability is a fluke. Sabrina did it twice, a convincing pattern. While the practice is still experimental, Jennings has read research that suggests dogs could be useful in detecting cancer.
"In short, at this point in time, if your dog is tagging on you, figure it out," she said.
A few days before Christmas 2009, Sabrina contracted leptospirosis, an often-fatal bacterial disease. Young spent the holiday at the emergency animal clinic on Viera Boulevard.
Young said one veterinarian called her "a dead dog walking."
He considered having her euthanized. It tore him apart. He called his mother, in tears, thinking he'd lose his little girl.
But a clinic in Maitland was able to save her.
Young owes her excellent care.
"There's no way I could repay her for what she did," he said. "There's no way."
Now 13, Sabrina is recovering from cataract surgery. Young's divorce two years ago left him with little money, but he still has Sabrina.
Young is a stout firefighter with a thick horseshoe mustache. He and his little dog pal around the house, running in the yard or snuggling on the floor in the living room. He squeezes his eyes closed tightly when she licks his forehead.
"She's not my little girl, I'm her little boy," he said. "And she knows it. And I will live with it."