Ulster University student overcomes cancer to graduate with first class honours

8 July 2021

Ulster University student overcomes cancer to graduate with first class honours

Thomas Cafolla graduates from Ulster University this summer with first class honours in International Hospitality Management after a difficult battle with blood cancer.

Thomas was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2017, just weeks after starting his hospitality placement year in London. Although extremely shocked by his diagnosis Thomas was comforted by the fact that Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a common type of cancer in the under 30s and usually very treatable and his doctors were optimistic that he would make a full recovery after chemotherapy.

He returned home to start his treatment but unfortunately Thomas was just one of the 15% of lymphoma patients who do not respond to chemotherapy. After exhausting every treatment available his only option was a stem cell transplant. With none of his family coming up as a compatible donor, Thomas had to wait for a suitable donor.

Thomas explained:

“To be diagnosed with cancer was really hard to take in; it was hard to believe. It still didn’t feel like it was actually happening to me. But even then I was told it was easily treatable so to find out I needed a stem cell transplant was an even bigger shock but my family and friends helped me stay positive. The doctors and nurses at Belfast City Hospital I met were all unbelievably helpful too.”

Thomas and his family engaged with Anthony Nolan, a blood cancer charity that makes lifesaving connections between patients in need and strangers ready to donate their stem cells. Together with the charity they organised numerous sign up drives to encourage people to sign up to the Anthony Nolan stem cell register. Successful sign up drives took place on Ulster University’s Coleraine, Magee and Belfast campuses with many students stepping up to support their fellow student and others in need of lifesaving treatment.

Thomas’ International Hospitality Management peers on the Belfast  campus, who studied event management, were eager to support their friend and raised over £2500 for the Anthony Nolan charity. Using the event management skills they had learned at Ulster they organized quizzes and other fundraising events in different venues across NI.

Thomas finally got the call he had been waiting for and received his stem cell transplant in January 2019. After more grueling rounds of chemotherapy and treatment Thomas was given the great news that he had made it to remission and he returned to university in September 2020.

Thomas explained:

“I was really apprehensive to return to university but the staff made it a lot easier to come back, particularly Nikki McQuillan. Having Nikki as my personal tutor took a lot of stress away. Going forward I’ll be working in our family cafe over the summer and will decide after that after gaining a new perspective on what I want to do.”

Nikki McQuillan, Lecturer in Event Management at Ulster commented:

“We are so proud of Thomas for the strength he has shown throughout his battle with cancer and subsequent  recovery. Returning to university was a difficult transition to make but Thomas took it all in his stride, graduating with first class honours. We are excited to follow his career as an emerging leader and as an ambassador for the department inspiring others to study International Hospitality Management at Ulster.”

Thomas will continue to support Anthony Nolan in the hope of helping others facing the same health issues as he did,

“It is so important to me to continue supporting Anthony Nolan and help them sign up more people to the stem cell register. A stem cell donor saved my life and I will be forever grateful. Thirty percent of people that need a transplant don’t find a match. I want to encourage as many people as possible to join the register to donate stem cells and potentially save someone’s life.”

More information on the charity and how to sign up to the register is available on the Anthony Nolan website.


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