Vincent Papol knew cancer and the devastation it brings. He had helplessly watched as it took his wife, Donna, when she was just 42 years old.
Now, five and a half years later, that feeling of helplessness was back as veterinarians delivered a grim cancer diagnosis for the cat his wife had loved and named Scarlet. Less than a year before Donna died, she and Papol had adopted the calico kitten. Scarlet had been there through it all. She was family.
“Scarlet belonged to my wife when she had cancer, and now this happened with her cat – I just could not believe it,” Papol said.
A rare but deadly cancer
It started as a small pea-sized lump. Papol assumed it was a bug bite. Within a week it was the size of a dime. A nickel the next.
It was an injection site sarcoma, an extremely rare cancerous tumor that can arise following injections. They can develop weeks, months, or years after vaccination, but only occur in a tiny percentage of cats, with estimates of 1-16 cases per 10,000 vaccinations.
Because the tumors are often aggressive, they can invade local tissues and spread to other areas of the body, which can lead to a poor prognosis. Veterinarians in Oregon told Papol that Scarlett, now 6 years old, would be lucky to survive two years – and that was the best-case scenario.
Finding hope at WSU
Papol sought a second opinion at the Associated Veterinary Medical Center in Walla Walla and was referred to Washington State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
“There was hope bringing her to WSU,” he said. “I am living in Pendleton and who would think you have one of the most advanced veterinary hospitals just three hours away.”
Scarlet’s care team at WSU, which initially included Drs. Megan Duffy and Alison Williams, recommended a treatment plan that called for amputation of her right hind leg, followed by radiation treatments. The amputation would hopefully remove all the cancerous cells, however, since the tumor was located fairly high on her limb, the surgical procedure alone was not enough to ensure the disease was completely removed. Radiation would kill any residual cells.
“I was uncomfortable with amputation, but they explained to me that would be the only chance for her to survive,” Papol said. “What do you do? There was only one option for me – obviously, I had to do everything I could to help her live.”
On April 26, 2018, small animal surgeon Dr. Bonnie Campbell and resident Dr. Scott Anderson amputated Scarlet’s right hind leg. Scarlet handled the procedure and recovery well, and less than a month later she underwent the first of her 18 rounds of radiation therapy at WSU.
Dr. Janean Fidel, a veterinary oncologist at WSU who assisted in Scarlet’s care after the procedure, stressed injection site sarcomas are extremely rare, and while the median survival time falls between 12 and 18 months, many cats live full lives if aggressively treated with surgery and radiation. She also emphasized the importance of vaccinating against deadly diseases like rabies and feline leukemia. Pet owners, however, should watch for any adverse reactions.
“It is really important that owners realize post-vaccine if something shows up to call it to their veterinarian’s attention,” Fidel said.
It has been more than three years since Papol asked his veterinarian about that lump on Scarlet’s leg. She is cancer-free today, and despite having just three limbs, she is still the happy, playful, and affectionate cat she has always been.
“It is like a miracle,” Papol said. “She is just a very special cat with how much she has gone through and how much she is part of the family. Our relationship was very close in the beginning, but now it is even closer.”