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Def Leppard's Vivian Campbell: My new drug is not curing my lymphoma, but it's certainly not getting any worse, so I can go on and live my life

Def Leppard star Vivian Campbell tells David O'Dornan about living with cancer and why he's looking forward to playing Belfast tonight with his other band, Last In Line

Vivian Campbell performs on stage with his band Last in Line
Vivian Campbell performs on stage with his band Last in Line

By David O'Dornan

It says everything about the work ethic of Belfast-born rock star Vivian Campbell that he jets back to the States every month for specialist treatment to keep his cancer at bay in between a relentless schedule of touring with not one, but two bands.

Best-known for playing with Def Leppard, Vivian admitted he has never worked so hard in his life as he juggles that job with his other band, Last In Line, who he brings to his home city tonight.

Last in Line
Last in Line

Six years ago his own life was rocked when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma and he has been living with the spectre of cancer ever since - but rather than letting it set him back, it has instead inspired him to leave a legacy of music.

"I had a bit of a wake-up call when I had a cancer diagnosis years ago and I'm still dealing with it," he says. "I still have to do infusions roughly every month to keep this cancer at bay.

Vivian on tour with Def Leppard
Vivian on tour with Def Leppard

"I've been doing immunotherapy which is part of the latest and greatest treatments. There's a bunch of new cancer treatments that have come up even in the last decade, particularly in the last five years.

"And one of them is the immunotherapy, there's several different drugs out there. I was part of a clinical trial for the first two years of a drug that is on the market now called Keytruda.

"I don't know about over there but over here in the States they run TV ads for this drug. It's the first drug that's ever been given to people for multiple cancers and it's predicated on a genetic marker so if you carry a particular genetic marker called PD-L1, which about a third of the population have, then you can take this drug regardless of what kind of cancer you have - melanoma, lymphoma, lung cancer, brain cancer and so on.

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"It's the Jimmy Carter drug. Jimmy Carter was part of the same treatment, this drug was given to him for melanoma and then I was part of the first wave of clinical trials here in the States for two years for people with relapsed lymphoma.

"Because my lymphoma kept coming back. I'd done chemo a couple of times, I'd done a stem cell transplant and it kept coming back, so I was a perfect candidate and it turns out I have this genetic marker, this PD-L1. I'm one of the 30-odd per cent of people who carry it and therefore I was fortunate enough to be able to try this trial.

"And so after two years it works wonderfully for me. It's a very benign treatment, it has very, very minor side-effects. I've continued on the treatment, it's exactly four and half years I've been doing this now, and to be honest the hardest part of it for me is scheduling because I am working so much.

Former President Jimmy Carter
Former President Jimmy Carter

"So wherever I am in the world I've got to fly back to the States at least once a month to do an infusion and that in itself is hard work but that's the hardest part of it, so it's a small price to pay but it's holding it at bay.

"It's not curing it, but it's certainly not getting any worse either, so I can go on and live my life. My oncologist is happy to let me bounce around the globe.

"He examines me about once a month and looks down my throat and listens to my lungs and I do scans every few months and he says 'you're looking good, away you go'."

Vivian Campbell in Donegal
Vivian Campbell in Donegal

Vivian (57) says that his health scare has made him determined to make the most of his talents with a guitar and enjoy life on tour with Def Leppard and Last In Line, who will be recording their third album next year.

"That kind of lit a bit of a fire under my a**, the whole thing, and I realised there's an expiration date here so you better get the finger out and get to work," he explains.

"And I really enjoy it more than anything else. It's one of my happy places in life to be on stage murdering a Les Paul guitar and even if I'm just in some little club with Last In Line playing for beer money it's one of my happy spots, it's very cathartic and makes me feel alive.

Vivian as an ambassador for the Northern Ireland Hospice Association with chair of trustees Margaret Butler
Vivian as an ambassador for the Northern Ireland Hospice Association with chair of trustees Margaret Butler

"It's all I ever wanted to do with my life and I'm fortunate that I do it at different levels. I do it in stadiums with Def Leppard in front of tens of thousands of people and get paid very handsomely for it and I do it voluntarily in front of a few hundred people with Last In Line and they are both equally rewarding for me.

"I would like think that my glass was always half-full, I was always an optimistic person. I just think it kind of heightened that feeling and turned the dial up a little bit more and made me really want to work more and if nothing else leave more of a legacy.

"I feel like I've been a little bit on the fringes of different things, I've been involved in so many different bands and different projects over the years, but this has been a different experience for me."

Last In Line take to the stage in The Limelight in Belfast tonight and rock fans will hear not just the band's own material but classics from Dio, the Eighties band fronted by Ronnie Dio in which Vivian first came to prominence.

He says: "I got fired from it and that's another reason I do the Last In Line thing because the whole way the Dio thing ended left a really bad taste in my mouth, for so many decades I did not consider that a credible part of my legacy and it was only after Ronnie died and a lot of life experience and a lot of miles under my wheels that I could look at it in a different way and realise, that's my legacy every bit as it is Ronnie's.

"Which is part of why it is such a joyous experience now to be able to go back and play this music and experience it with a completely different point of view.

"But I'm trying to be as busy as possible as you get one go around this and I kind of feel that because I've been in and out of so many bands over the years I've never had the chance to fully make my imprint and I'm trying to do that as much as possible.

"I feel like I've got a lot more to offer - I'll be 58 next summer but I still feel like I'm 18. My body doesn't feel like I'm 18 but my mind definitely does and when I get up on stage and play my Les Paul I still play like I'm 18, I still just have that energy and conviction to it and I got that from my guitar heroes, Rory Gallagher and Gary Moore, two fellow Irishmen.

"There's just something about the way we Irish play guitar. I know that's not a traditionally Irish thing, it's rock guitar and a modern invention, but we approach it very melodically and very aggressively for whatever reason and that's something that I've picked up from both of those guys and that I've continued with."

And Vivian, who now lives in New Hampshire on America's east coast after more that 30 years living in LA, said there is something else he is looking forward to when he is back in town tonight.

"Other than my family and friends I miss Donegal, it kind of recharges my battery there and every time I go back to Ireland I try to get up there," he says.

"My family spent all of our summers up there. I think the first time I went up I was four years old and then we spent every year, literally all of the summer there.

"My family would rent a little place just outside of Buncrana and then in the early Seventies my parents bought a plot of land up there and actually built a house so it's been a second home in the family ever since.

"When my parents passed away my sister inherited the house and she encourages everyone in the family to use it, so it's a second home to us.

"But I also miss wheaten bread - it's hard to get good bread of any kind here in America. I really miss wheaten bread - and wine gums."

Last In Line play The Limelight in Belfast tonight. Tickets are available from the venue and Ticketmaster

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