Belfast Telegraph

Dad’s plea for stem cell donor who could save his son’s life


Marie and Michael Cafolla with their son Thomas in Newtownards
Marie and Michael Cafolla with their son Thomas in Newtownards
Thomas during his cancer treatment with his father

By Lisa Smyth

A Co Down businessman has appealed for people to be tested to see if they can become stem cell donors and save his son's life.

Michael Cafolla has urged as many people as possible to attend a recruitment drive at St George's Market in Belfast between noon and 4pm today.

His son, 22-year-old Thomas, was forced to put his life on hold when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in October last year.

He has suffered a series of devastating setbacks in his treatment, as he falls within the 15% of patients who do not respond to the traditional chemotherapy regime for his type of cancer.

This has meant he has had to endure a range of different chemotherapy drugs as doctors have worked to find an effective treatment for his blood cancer.

Now Thomas, who has had to defer his university degree while he fights the disease, needs a stem cell transplant.

His three siblings have all been tested but none is a match, forcing him to pin his hopes on a complete stranger now saving his life.

Mr Cafolla (54) explained: "Despite everything Thomas has been through, he stays remarkably positive.

"So many things have gone wrong throughout his treatment that it has got to the point where we know when we're going to get bad news.

"If everything is going well you tend to see a doctor, but when things aren't going how they would like, you walk into the room and the consultant is there with a nurse and a box of tissues.

"Thomas is now in the position where he needs a stem cell transplant in order to survive.

"I would say the whole experience has been surreal, it's surreal to think that a complete stranger is going to save my son's life."

Thomas said he still finds it difficult to believe he has been diagnosed with cancer.

"I'm quite good at not thinking about it, to be honest," he said.

"I would just appeal to as many people as possible to sign up as potential stem cell donors, because it really does save lives.

"I never knew anything about it while I was at school, I certainly never thought I would ever be diagnosed with cancer, but most people will be affected in some way through their life. Getting tested to go on the register doesn't hurt, all it takes is a cheek swab, but it can make such a difference to someone like me."

Thomas, who is studying hospitality at Ulster University, had just begun his placement year when he began to display symptoms.

However, he put the extreme night sweats and fatigue down to the stress of moving to London and working in a busy hotel.

However, when his mum Marie (51) paid him a visit at the end of last September, she was concerned at the amount of weight he had lost. The fact that he was complaining about a lump in his neck also set alarm bells ringing, so she accompanied Thomas to an NHS walk-in centre.

The doctor there immediately sent Thomas to a nearby hospital where a raft of tests revealed he had Hodgkin's lymphoma, an uncommon cancer that develops in the lymphatic system - a network of vessels and glands spread throughout the body.

"When Thomas was diagnosed everyone said that if you are going to get cancer, then Hodgkin lymphoma is a good one to get as it is treatable, but unfortunately that hasn't been the case for Thomas," Mr Cafolla said.

"He hasn't responded to the chemotherapy the way the doctors would have liked, so he had to have a different chemotherapy, which was much tougher.

"He also had to go through the application process for a treatment to help him, because it wasn't available on the health service because of the cost.

"Fortunately he was allowed to have the treatment, but it was very stressful.

"None of it seems real, Marie and I have to support Thomas and we just have to get on with it.

"Our lives have just become about hospital appointments and when is the next scan and hoping that everything goes okay."

If you are aged between 16 and 30 and are in good health, you can join the Anthony Nolan stem cell register.

The charity matches individuals willing to donate their blood stem cells or bone marrow to people with blood cancer and blood disorders who desperately need lifesaving transplants.

A recruitment event for donors is being held at the Institute of Hospitality's Homegrown and Growing event at St George's Market in Belfast city centre today between noon and 4pm.

Anyone unable to attend the event but who would like to register as a donor or find out more information can log on to

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