Def Leppard's Vivian Campbell

Diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, Def Leppard guitarist talks about treatment and coping with losing his trademark hair in this film and story

Def Leppard's Vivian Campbell

‘I was on tour with Def Leppard when I sussed something was amiss. I was unwell in December 2011 and was given anti-biotics, but a month on I still had a cough, so I knew something was wrong with my immune system. Whenever I exerted myself, the cough got worse and this went on for 3-4 months. So I went to see my doctor in Los Angeles, where I live. He suggested I might just be taking some time to get over the infection. But the cough got worse and by June 2012, when the band were about to start a US tour, I was coughing all the time. The more I pushed myself, the worse it got.  

When I was singing - and with Def Leppard there are lots of vocals - I found the cough was just atrocious and it was so draining. Eventually I asked if I could have an X-ray.

The doctor suggested I needed a CT scan and this showed I had enlarged lymph nodes. I was told it could be one of two things - either a condition called sarcoidosis or lymphoma.

They carried out blood tests which showed that I was anaemic. When I suggested that this could be because I am a vegetarian, they said that I was way more anaemic than that. Next they sent me to an oncologist who specialised in haematological cancers to do some more tests.

The oncologist was asking me questions and I was ticking all the boxes: ‘Do you have night sweats?’, ‘Yes, I’ve had them for the last 10 months’; ‘Are your legs itchy?’, ‘ Yes, how did you know?’  I hadn’t been on the scales but I could tell I’d lost weight. My clothes were very loose and I certainly wasn’t dieting -  I had all the classic symptoms of lymphoma. But they didn’t know for certain what my diagnosis was until they did a biopsy of a gland in my neck. They told me that it was Hodgkin lymphoma. I had heard the term ‘Hodgkin lymphoma’ and ‘non-Hodgkin lymphoma‘ before but did not know they were forms of cancer.

We were about to start  the rehearsals for our Los Angeles run of shows. I went into rehearsal that day and said ‘I won’t be able to sing today’, pointing at the biopsy scar on my neck. I went back to my oncologist and they did a bone marrow biopsy the next day to find out how advanced the lymphoma  was. I was diagnosed with stage IIB Hodgkin lymphoma, so it had been found pretty early and the oncologist allowed me to go to Las Vegas for a month to do the shows.

This gave me time to process the information they’d given me. I found that having work to concentrate on was really helpful. Even when I was having the chemotherapy treatment over on the other side of the world, I carried on doing shows. I enjoy work, and the distraction is really helpful.

It may be part of my stubborn Irish mind-set but I was determined to carry on working and had no intention of changing my lifestyle. The doctor did say:  ‘Do what you feel you have to do, but just be good to yourself.’

‘Losing my hair was probably the single most difficult thing for me.’

 
Losing my hair was probably the single most difficult thing for me
Vivian Campbell

The hair aspect is really big, whether you are a man, a women or a rock-and-roll guitarist! That is the most obvious thing people see and the biggest clue that something is wrong. After a couple of chemotherapy treatments not much had happened to me. A few hairs had  fallen out but I thought ‘Hey, maybe I will get through this without my hair falling out.’ But my doctor was more realistic. I tried to avoid washing my hair, but I couldn’t avoid it forever and eventually I just had to get in the shower and wash my hair. One day I found that as I put the shampoo and conditioner on, my hair was coming out everywhere. It was one of those terrible moments. I got out of the shower and got the scissors and cut it all off really short.

I had ordered a wig. I didn’t know how I would feel, but I am a guitar player and didn’t want to tell anyone. I thought that if I used a wig on tour no one would notice. I tried the wig on and it just seemed so strange to me. If felt uncomfortable and itchy. I had paid a lot for it and the man had made it beautifully. I put it on as I got in the car. It was on my head for less than 15 minutes and already it was itchy. I pulled over and took it off. It has not been on since.

Social media is an amazing and powerful thing. I decided to go onto my Facebook page and announce there that I was undergoing treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma. I told people that I would be looking a little different when we were on tour now.

The response I got via my Facebook page was overwhelming. Thousands of people were wishing me well. What was even more astounding was finding out how many other people had had Hodgkin lymphoma or knew someone who had it. I had no idea how common it was. People were writing to me saying how they had recovered and giving me tips on what to do.

Losing my hair was probably the single most difficult thing for me. The way I am looking at this now is that it allows me to focus on my music. Now, because I don’t care how I look, it takes vanity out of the equation.  I have had long hair almost all my adult life. I am 51 and it is time to have a grown up haircut! When I go on stage now I don’t worry about how my hair looks -  I am playing guitar.

I would advocate that people take charge of their own health and explain fully to the medics what is going on. People tend to tell half-truths to their doctor, but it is vitally important to stay on top of your health or tell someone if you have any concerns.’

Watch Vivian Campbell talk about his experience with lymphoma