My health experience: ‘I couldn’t imagine performing bald’

Def Leppard guitarist Vivian Campbell speaks about his work and his life, living with Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Towards the end of 2011 I was in Australia with Def Leppard when I became sick. I remember seeing a “rock doc” at one of the gigs. Every promoter has the name of a “rock doc” in their phone book because people get sick on tours all the time, whether it’s somebody in the band or in the crew.

That doctor prescribed me antibiotics, but a week or so later, after my symptoms cleared, I still had a bit of a cough that just wouldn’t go away. Less than a month later, in December, we were in the UK and I had a recurrence of the very same symptoms. I saw another doctor and he gave me yet more antibiotics. Again, the major symptoms cleared, but the cough remained.

My cough would ebb and flow. Sometimes it would be so bad that I could barely speak and other times it would be just a little tickle, but it never really went away.

When it was at its worst, I couldn’t hold a conversation.


By June 2012 we were due to start a summer tour and I was still coughing all the time. With Def Leppard we all sing and there are plenty of vocals in every song, so my cough made singing very, very difficult, but it made for an interesting tour, to say the least.

After that tour my doctor in Los Angeles referred me to a respiratory specialist. The respiratory doctor just kept giving me inhalers and nasal sprays for months and months until I eventually told him, "Look, you're going to have to X-ray me; there's something else going on here."

Immediately after seeing the X-ray, he sent me to have a CT scan. The following day he called to say he had referred me to an oncologist.

I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in March of 2013. It turns out the lymph nodes at the top of my chest were strangling my wind pipe, hence the cough. It was very frightening to be told I had cancer.

I had the biopsy on a Monday and got the diagnosis on a Tuesday – the same day we were to begin rehearsing for our first ever residency of Las Vegas shows.

The good news was that I was diagnosed at stage 2B, which, fortunately, meant that it was caught reasonably early. If I’d trusted my instincts more than I trusted my doctor’s, it might have been caught earlier still.

Naturally, I was scared by the thought of doing chemotherapy and one of my first thoughts was would I be able to continue to work. As ridiculous as it sounds, hair was one of my early concerns.

Convincing wig

My hair had been long since I was 12 years old and, as a rock guitarist for all of my adult life, I had come to let my hair define a big part of my identity. It seems crazy now, but at first I couldn’t imagine performing bald, so I went out and bought a very expensive, convincing wig.

I had it on my head for less than 10 minutes before I pulled it off and it’s never been back on since. It was so physically and mentally uncomfortable to me and I kept thinking to myself, when should I wear this? Should I wear it in the hotel? Should I wear it at the airport?

The fact that I was asking myself all these questions led me to decide to go public with the whole thing rather than try to hide it. I’m really glad I did as it was very cathartic for me to do so. Looking back at it now I can’t believe I was ever even concerned about that.

But every cloud has a silver lining, and over the past few years of chemo and stem cell transplants, I can honestly say that I’m grateful for the life lessons cancer has taught me. I’m so much more comfortable with who I am as a person and I no longer put as much emphasis on physical appearance, for myself, or anyone else for that matter. It’s our spirit that truly defines who we are.

We’ve been touring for many, many years and we’ve done thousands of shows. There have always been a number of times when it has been difficult to get through a show, but my worst ever show was in the summer of 2014 at the Los Angeles Forum.

We were on tour with Kiss and I was having chemotherapy at the time, scheduling my treatments around the shows and the travel. It was one of the three regimes of chemotherapy that I had gone through over the last several years, but this was a particularly brutal one.

It was called Ice – named after the combination of drugs used: ifosfamide, carboplatin and etoposide.

I don’t remember a thing about that show, but I do know we had to cut out a few of the songs as I sing a lot of the high parts and there was no way I was going to reach those notes that night. I’ve no idea how we got through it, but somehow we did.

Allergic reaction

I had been at hospital the whole night before this show getting an infusion of Ice. I didn’t realise it at the time, but it turns out I had a bad allergic reaction to one of the chemotherapy drugs.

My eyes were completely swollen and I looked as if I had just done 10 rounds with Mike Tyson.

That was the first time in my life that I wore sunglasses indoors for an arena show, but I looked truly horrendous and needed something to hide behind. As a result of the chemotherapy, for that entire tour I was completely bald; I didn’t even have eyebrows.

Doing the tour while undergoing chemo helped me have a lot more faith in myself as a musician and, after all, that’s what’s important. It’s not about the hair, the clothes, or how we look. It’s about the art, the emotion, and the human connection it inspires.

My hair has grown back a little bit since and so, after all these years, I finally get to have a grown-up haircut. Frankly, I wish I’d done it years ago.

My cancer has come back on three occasions now. After three rounds of chemotherapy, I had a stem cell transplant in October 2014. I thought that finally, this will take care of it.

Unfortunately, it didn’t. When I had follow-up scans in May of 2015 they showed there was new activity in my lymph nodes. My doctors wanted me to do a course of radiation then, but for various reasons I couldn’t bring myself to do that.

Fortunately my wife did some research and found out about a new course of treatment that is part of an FDA-approved clinical trial in the United States. It was for a class of drugs called monoclonal antibodies and it’s a form of immune- boosting therapy called, appropriately enough, immunotherapy.

I’m currently receiving a drug called pembrolizumab, the same drug that cured former president Jimmy Carter’s metastatic melanoma, so I guess I’m in good company. Right now it seems to at least be keeping my cancer at bay.

Aside from the efficacy of the treatment, an important element for me is the fact that there are very minimal side effects with this drug and, as such, I’m able to continue my work schedule while I take it. In fact, the hardest part of it all has been the scheduling and the extra travel.

No matter where I am in the world, I have to return to Los Angeles every three weeks to receive infusions. I’ve garnered a lot of frequent flier miles.

Beyond my 24-year tenure with Def Leppard, I've taken on several side projects over the years and recently I reunited with my original Dio band colleagues – Jimmy Bain and Vinny Appice – to form Last In Line. Together with new singer Andrew Freeman taking over from the late, great Ronnie James Dio, our debut album, Heavy Crown, was released on February 19th.

Unfortunately, Jimmy didn’t live to see the record’s release; he passed away on January 23rd. Jimmy was suffering from pneumonia at the time, but his autopsy showed that he had chronic lung cancer – a disease he wasn’t even aware he had.

Big break

Jimmy was the one who got me my first big break in the music business when he recommended me for Dio in 1982 and for that I am forever indebted to him.

He struggled with the demons of addiction through the years, but over the last 18 months he had finally won that battle, and he was bright and lucid and motivated throughout the writing and recording of the new record.

He leaves behind him a rich legacy of work from Rainbow, through Wild Horses, Dio, and finally, Last In Line. Jimmy was immensely proud of our new album and his input to it was immeasurable.

Knowing what I now know, that Jimmy died of lung cancer, makes me realise even more just how lucky I am. Jimmy had no money and no health insurance and, as a result of that, the disease slowly ate away at him. I have insurance and access to great doctors and the best care. I’m one of the lucky ones and I continue to remain one step ahead of my cancer.

Cancer is such an insidious disease that takes many forms, but I intend to stick around for quite a while yet. I have many more boxes to tick and many, many more notes to coax out of my Les Paul guitar.

Last in Line's Heavy Crown is out now on Frontier Records.

In an interview with

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times