Friday 22 November 2019

"It's holding my tumours in place' - Def Leppard rock star on his battle with cancer

Campbell says 'work was cathartic and helped me to deal with it'

Def Leppard
Def Leppard
Vivian Campbell (left) has been in chemotherapy for two months
Def Leppard's Vivian Campbell, who toured during cancer treatment

Aisling Fleming

When Irish rock star Vivian Campbell was diagnosed with the disease four years ago he threw himself into his music ... and that is why he is still alive, he says.

He's one of the biggest names in rock music to come from these shores, and Vivian Campbell's story is one of global success. But the music that the guitarist is famous for has not only afforded him a rock star lifestyle in LA - he credits it with saving his life.

Diagnosed in 2013 with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, the 55-year-old says he's been busier for the past five years than at any other period in his career.

He revealed his battle with cancer in 2013. Advised by friends to slow down, he took the opposite approach and immersed himself in work. The cancer, he says, lit a fire under him.

"I think I would've succumbed to the cancer if I'd stayed at home and convalesced - which a lot of people wanted me to do, like the guys in Def Leppard," he says. "You want people to attend to their illnesses, but no one knew better than me how to deal with it.

"It was a very personal thing, and my work was cathartic and very much a part of dealing with it. I wouldn't have wanted to not be able to work.

"I enjoy some time off, don't get me wrong. It's important for health and mental wellbeing, but work has always been my passion so it's not really like work to me."

Viv says his strong constitution and no-nonsense Northern Ireland upbringing were key in not letting cancer get the better of him, describing his approach to the illness as "pigheaded".

His health now is all about maintenance. For the past two years he's been part of a medical trial in Los Angeles, at City of Hope - one of the world's leading cancer research facilities - being treated with medication called pembrolizumab, which has only recently been FDA approved.

"It's a remarkable new drug which works on multiple kinds of cancers," he explains.

"It only works on people with a specific genetic marker, which I think is about 30-40% of the population.

"I'm one of the lucky ones and it's suppresses the cancer by suppressing the immune system.

"For years before that I did various rounds of chemo, some more punishing than others, along with stem cell transplants.

"Doctors wanted me to do radiation which led to me doing my own research and I came across this clinical trial.

"It's holding my tumours in place, they haven't got any bigger over the last two years and as long as that continues my doctors are content for me to do this.

"It allows me to continue my music and my life. Wherever I am in the world I have to fly back to LA once a month for an infusion and have scans every few months."

Speaking from him his home in LA, with an accent undiminished by his years away from Northern Ireland, Vivian says he's been "fortunate" in his career.

During a career spanning four decades, the former Rathmore Grammar pupil has written, performed, toured and worked with legendary acts including Thin Lizzy, Dio, Whitesnake, Riverdogs and Lou Gramm.

Since 1992 he's been a member of Def Leppard and, while a 'Legend Award' is often made in the twilight of a career, Vivian says he's busier now than he's ever been.

"I'm not just with Def Leppard for the last 25 years, but about five years ago I also started the Last in Line project and been very active with that," he says. "We've just started on the second album, and I also put out an album in early July with Riverdogs, a band I was in during the early '80s, which has become a cult classic.

"I've been very fortunate as all I ever wanted to be was the guitar player in a rock band and I've played in some of the greatest.

"I've worked with very talented musicians and it's been a colourful career. I've been very blessed, and I've never lost sight of that."

His long career began back in 1979 with the formation of homegrown metal act Sweet Savage, who supported Thin Lizzy on their Renegade tour and also went on the road with Ozzy Osbourne, Wishbone Ash and Motorhead.

He's still in contact with his old bandmates, attending bass player Ray Haller's wedding in March, although he is based full-time in southern California and has two daughters - Lily (18) and Una (16) - with ex-wife Julie.

Married to Caitlin since 2004, he's a regular visitor to Ireland, enjoying time in Donegal with older sister Fiona, and young brothers John and Michael.

His healthcare may be based in the city, but looking to the future, Vivian says a move away from Los Angeles will happen within the next few years.

"My wife Caitlin and I are only here because of the kids," he says. "My eldest daughter just went to college in Boston, and when my youngest daughter goes I'll almost certainly leave LA.

"I think I've done my time here. It's not all bad, but it wouldn't have been my first choice."

While work keeps him going, Viv says it also gives him a renewed focus on his craft, concentrating on his talent in the absence of his trademark long hair which had been as much a part of his career as the guitars he played.

"A lot of people went out of their way to help me and the worst part when I was doing hardcore chemo and stem cell transplants, I didn't make for the prettiest of rock stars," he says.

"When I was on stage with Def Leppard in 2014, not only was I bald, but I didn't have eyebrows. It's not very rock 'n' roll.

"It was probably shocking for some people, but for me it was very liberating. I like to find a silver lining in everything and to be completely bald really made me focus on what I do and who I am. I'm a musician and a guitar player.

"You can lose sight of that when you're in an international rock band and you've got long hair, it's all about the clothes and the flash.

"A big part of it becomes about the presentation and the performance, and those moments brought me back to the core of who I am and what I do. It comes from within, I channelled deep down to bring out the emotional aspect of the music and the way I play guitar.

"When you've no hair and you're playing in front of 20,000 people, that's all you can rely on.

"It was a good thing and I'm taking a lot of positives out of it."

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