Kind hearted staff at one of the region’s biggest automotive manufacturers have given up their Christmas gift so an ill colleague can undergo life-saving treatment.

ZF Peterlee employee Liam Debbage was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of cancer, Clear Cell Sarcoma, 16 months ago.

The cancer, which was discovered after the 31-year-old injured his shoulder playing squash, is so rare that it only affects around 200 people in the world.

After diagnosis, dad-of-two Liam was given the devastating news that there was no treatment available on the NHS and that he, his wife Michelle and their family and friends must prepare for the worst.

However, after researching the cancer, they found that a drug, Pembrolizumab, which is being used in clinical trials at seven locations around the country, including the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle, has proved effective in treating Clear Cell Sarcoma in the US.

After speaking to the specialists who were looking after him, Liam and Michelle were told that any treatment would need to be funded privately, as there aren’t enough people suffering from the condition to allow trials to be funded on the NHS.

So over the last few months, the couple, family and friends have been fundraising to reach the £30,000 needed to begin treatment. Up until last week they’d passed £15,000, however, Liam has since been told that every one of his ZF Peterlee colleagues has decided to forego their annual Christmas gift from the company, meaning it can instead donate the equivelent money to his fundraising campaign – a huge £16,000. This has been topped up by an extra £1,500 from ZF bosses which means Liam can undergo the Pembrolizumab treatment.

Liam, who lives with Michelle in Murton, County Durham, said: “I cannot put into words what this means to me. When they rang me to tell me the news, I broke down. I can now undergo treatment which could potentially help me beat this cancer.

“When I was diagnosed with Clear Cell Sarcoma, I didn’t know what to do as it was such a shock. I thought, how can I be so ill when I feel absolutely fine? And then to be told that my cancer is so rare that there was no treatment available on the NHS was an even bigger blow. The whole journey has been awful.

“Now I have hope and have been told that in a matter of a couple of weeks the treatment could start. Thank you to everyone at ZF Peterlee for making this possible.”

Clear Cell Sarcoma is a soft tissue cancer which predominantly affects young adults, aged 20 to 40, and is usually found in limbs, particularly hands and feet. However, what makes Liam’s cancer even more rare is that the tumours are growing around his back and right shoulder and into the lymph nodes that surround the tissue in this area.

Liam and his wife Michelle have been together for eight a half years and married for just over a year. Michelle said: “It’s been incredibly hard to stay strong, as at first we really felt like we were on our own. We knew there were no treatment available on the NHS as Liam’s cancer is so rare, but we refused to give up and instead focussed all of our efforts on researching the condition to see if there was anything we could do.

“Now, after months of fundraising to privately undergo the Pembrolizumab drug treatment, we have raised enough that in a couple of weeks it can start.

“That’s all down to the generosity of Liam’s colleagues at ZF and has completely restored my faith in people.

“I’d also like to thank all the people and businesses who have donated. It’s amazed me just how willing people are to help, even when they don’t even know Liam.”

Lisa Walton is HR Manager at ZF in Peterlee. She said: “When I called Liam to tell him what we’d decided to do, I don’t think he fully grasped what it meant. When I then informed Liam what the amount was that the company would be donating, he broke down as he realised it meant he had reached his target and could undergo treatment.

“Liam is such a popular member of the ZF team and everyone wanted to do whatever they could to help, and sacrificing their Christmas gift from the company seemed like a small price to pay to ensure their colleague gets this potentially life-saving treatment.”

Liam’s Just Giving page can be found here: