Def Leppard's Vivian Campbell talks cancer treatment, Last In Line band plans

After a protracted diagnosis revealed his Hodgkin's lymphoma, Campbell says, "You have to advocate for your own health; you can't just take your doctors at their word."
After a protracted diagnosis revealed his Hodgkin's lymphoma, Campbell says, "You have to advocate for your own health; you can't just take your doctors at their word." (Image credit: Bob King/Corbis)

Despite celebrated stints in both Dio and Whitesnake, since joining Def Leppard in 1992, guitarist Vivian Campbell has maintained something of a low profile. All of that changed last month, before Def Leppard's current summer tour, when the 50-year-old guitarist revealed that he was battling Hodgkin's lymphoma, having been diagnosed with the cancer last March.

"Yeah, there's been a lot of focus on me and my health," Campbell acknowledged during a recent phone chat from a tour stop in Santiago, Spain. "But, all things considered, I'm feeling very well. My body is responding positively to the chemo - it's doing what it's supposed to do - and I'm not having too many adverse side effects. I'm going about my life pretty normally."

In addition to playing the full run of Def Lep dates (slated to end 17 July in Canandaigua, New York), Campbell is pressing ahead with his plans to perform with his original Dio bandmates (bassist Jimmy Bain, drummer Vinnie Appice, keyboardist Claude Schnell, along with new vocalist Andy Freeman) in August. In the following interview, the guitarist discusses his treatment, his prognosis and talks about his decision to tour with the Last In Line band.

How was the Hodgkin's lymphoma first diagnosed? Were there symptoms?

"What happened was, I had a cough that wouldn't go away. It started in June 2012, right as we were in rehearsals for our summer tour with Poison, and it got more and more intense, to the point where it was difficult for me to sing on stage. As soon as the tour was over, I went to see my doctor. They gave me inhalers and told me it was an inflamed windpipe - something like that.

"But the problem wouldn't go away. I kept going back and getting different inhalers; nothing was really working. I was sent to a respiratory specialist, and they did more of the same, treating me with inhalers and nasal sprays. I knew something was wrong, and in retrospect, now that I know the symptoms, I had all of the symptoms: I was losing weight rapidly, even though I wasn't doing anything to lose weight; I was getting night sweats; itchy skin - a bizarre set of symptoms.

"One thing that this taught me is that you have to advocate for your own health; you can't just take your doctors at their word. They don't always know what's going on. I mean, nobody knows your own body better than yourself. I kept pestering my doctors and saying, 'You gotta X-ray my chest.' Eventually, they did, and the tests showed something that didn't look right. They couldn't really ascertain what it was, so they sent me for a CAT Scan, and after that came the PET Scan, and then came the surgical biopsy to make sure.

"I got my cancer diagnosis on the 12th of March, which was a week before we started the Hysteria shows in Vegas. That was weird, having to go through the whole Vegas thing and going on stage. I felt very weak and my energy level was very low. I was anemic because of the blood cancer.

"Not being able to tell anyone was strange. I told the guys in the band, obviously, but my own children didn't know - I waited three or four weeks to tell them. Once I told them, I realized that it was better to just come clean about the whole thing, because I wanted to do these summer shows, and it was going to be pretty obvious to some people that something was going on - drastic haircut aside.

"It's a funny thing about cancer sometimes, because people always assume the worst. A lot of people think of cancer as a death sentence. There's all sorts of cancers and different levels. I just didn't want people to think this was something that it wasn't."

"I really do believe that having the right kind of attitude helps," says Campbell regarding his Hodgkin's treatment. © Gene Ambo ./Retna Ltd./Corbis

You're still in the middle of treatment, right?

"I'm exactly halfway through. I did my sixth chemo treatment - I have 12 total over a period of six months. I did my sixth on the 18th of June."

How are you managing to do the treatment on the road?

"My treatments are approximately every two weeks apart, so I have to fly back to LA. It's just worked out that they're close enough where I can do these shows. They altered some of my treatments - four, five and six were closer spaced together than they normally would be to allow me this 19-day gap between treatments six and seven.

"I fly back to LA on the 7th of July, have a chemo treatment on the 8th, and then I fly to Canada on the 9th to rejoin the band. I know it's going to be tough. The first few days after a treatment are really rough, and each one gets more intense than the last, obviously, with the buildup of the chemicals. For the show in Calgary I'm not going to be feeling great. But I can do it. Plus, I really do believe that having the right kind of attitude helps. I never considered this to be something that's going to keep me down."

Your doctors have given you a good prognosis?

"Yeah, well, I was fortunate. Because I had the cough, I caught it very early. My oncologist was so positive about it, she allowed me to go to Vegas to do the month's worth of shows before starting the chemo. If it had been further along, I never would have been able to do that. When they did the surgical biopsy and found out I had the Hodgkin's, they followed it up with a bone marrow biopsy to make sure it hadn't gone there. Fortunately, it hadn't, because once it's in your bone marrow, that's when people have real problems."

I saw some photos of your new hairdo - looks good.

[Laughs] "Well, thanks! I don't mind having the real short hair; unfortunately, it's falling out super-quick. With each successive chemo treatment, it's coming out faster and faster. I'm not too sure that by August I'll have this even. You never know - I might be doing the ol' Joe Satriani look very soon."

A lot of rockers are doing the clean look - you'll be in good company.

"It's a lot more convenient, I'll tell you. I've had long hair my entire adult life, since I was 11 or 12, when I was an adolescent - that's when I started growing my hair. It's a refreshing change, actually; there's not a lot of work you have to do at all."

After you finish the Leppard tour, you're still going to hit the road with the Last In Line band.

"Definitely. Originally, we planned to do a three-week European tour, including a lot of festivals, but because of my chemo schedule we've had to pare that down drastically. We're just doing the minimum thing now, four shows in the UK - three club dates and a festival - in early August. I felt that it was important because I'd gotten to the stage where I really wanted to do something this summer.

"I'm very excited about this. It's been a real pleasure to play with those guys again. Musically, it's really something to go back and play guitar like that. I haven't played that way in 25 years or so. Those solos were always kind of erratic, so to relearn what I did when I was 20, 21 years old, it's been a refreshing challenge.

"We've got a great singer, Andy Freeman, who doesn't sound anything like Ronnie Dio. That works for me because I didn't want a Ronnie clone; I didn't want that to be the focus. There was only one Ronnie, and I didn't want to replace him. I just wanted this to be about the original band."

Was getting together with the original band something you had discussed while Ronnie was still alive?

"No. You know, it had gotten so far along, and Ronnie had gone through so many people in his band, it was a little like Whitesnake in that regard. He got used to that, Ronnie and his backing band, and was happy with that kind of thing. I don't really know 'cause I hadn't talked to him since the day he fired me, back in 1985. And with his wife, Wendy, you know, she always wanted to separate Ronnie from the band. I don't even know if they saw eye-to-eye on that."

In the past, you said that wanted to distance yourself from Dio's music. It sounds like that's not the case anymore.

"I only wanted to distance myself because it was a very painful memory for me. For years and years, Ronnie and Wendy portrayed it in the press that I had left the band, turned my back on them in the middle of a tour, and that's 100 percent untrue. I was fired from the band; I never wanted to leave. So I had a real emotional disconnect with the whole thing.

"For many years, I never listened to those albums. It's only recently that I've started to listen again, and I'm re-appreciating them. I've come to realize that it's my heritage."

Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar WorldGuitar PlayerMusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.