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Def Leppard's Vivian Campbell: I refuse to let cancer beat me

NI rocker reckons his fast-livin' lifestyle has helped keep him alive

Def Leppard
Def Leppard

By Ralph McLean

For most people, finding out you had cancer would mean a massive change of lifestyle. Most would slow down, take it easy and rest as much as humanly possible. Vivian Campbell is not most people, however.

"I've never been so busy as since I got my cancer diagnosis," the guitarist tells me as we hook up to discuss the imminent return of his band Def Leppard to these shores. The popular Lisburn-born rocker discovered he had Hodgkin's lymphoma several years back but he refused to let it curtail a music career that's seen him tour the world with acts like Dio, Whitesnake and, for the last 27 years, his beloved Def Leppard.

He's just completed a hugely successful 60-date stadium tour of the States and the band are about to bring their iconic show celebrating the 30th anniversary of Hysteria to the SSE Arena in Belfast on December 2.

"We're playing and singing and sounding better than we've ever played on this particular tour," he tells me proudly, though it hasn't always been the easiest journey back to good health for the 56-year-old.

"I did a couple of rounds of chemotherapy and the cancer came back," he says in typically straightforward style. "I did a stem cell transfer and the cancer came back and then they wanted me to do radiation - I refused. That's when I really started advocating for my own health. I stopped just taking my doctor's word for it and I found different clinical trials and new drugs that were coming into play."

It was a clinical trial for a new immunotherapy drug three-and-a-half years ago that allowed the guitarist to really turn a corner. "I'm one of the lucky people that responded to it," he reveals. "You need a certain genetic marker for it to be effective and only a third of the population have this particular gene."

Luck is only part of the story, of course. "A very strong, stubborn Irish constitution does help," he says with a smile. "That was a big, big part of it. That's probably the most important tool that I have in my arsenal to fight this, that I just refuse to give up."

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Def Leppard guitarist Vivian Campbell becomes an ambassador for the Northern Ireland Hospice Association with chair of trustees Margaret Butler at The Royal Albert Hall, London.
Photo credit: Simon Jacobs
Def Leppard guitarist Vivian Campbell becomes an ambassador for the Northern Ireland Hospice Association with chair of trustees Margaret Butler at The Royal Albert Hall, London. Photo credit: Simon Jacobs

Wouldn't a little time away from the pressure of performing have helped as well, though?

"No I disagree with that. If I had stopped working I would probably be dead but that's just me. I don't see my work as being work. It's really a labour of love so to me it wasn't like going into an office 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. If that was the case I might have taken some time off - quite happily! - but that's not what my life is. I've been very lucky."

It's a passion for performing and making music that has been with him since his very earliest days.

"It's all I ever wanted to do," he replies with real enthusiasm. "I remember the first time I played live music with people when I was in school. I would find out that so-and-so had a drum kit and that was it. I was like, 'When can we play together?'

"You know, my course was set from the first time I ever did that."

It's a course that's seen Vivian play with some of the biggest bands in rock history, and returning home with Def Leppard to deliver their classic album Hysteria in its entirety next weekend brings him particular pride.

Def Leppard Joe Elliott- Vivian Campbell
Def Leppard Joe Elliott- Vivian Campbell

"Hysteria is a remarkable album," he says of that 1987 release that to date has sold more than 25 million copies worldwide. Although he arrived in the band just too late to work on it personally, he's always been a big admirer.

"I was a fan from the very early days but like many people around the world I became even more interested in the band as a fan with that record. I had it on cassette first and I actually played it so much the tape wore out."

The very first time he ever saw the band he would go on to play with was on that original Hysteria tour 30 long years ago.

"I was with Whitesnake and we were playing Detroit and we heard that Def Leppard were playing at one of the local arenas, so a few of us went down to see them. It was an absolutely spectacular show." The 30 years of Hysteria tour rolls into town next Sunday and it's something Vivian is clearly excited about.

"I always love coming back to Belfast," he says smiling again.

"We always had great receptions when we've played in Belfast so I'm hoping and expecting this time will be the same.

Def Leppard
Def Leppard

"It's been a great year all round for the band. We've had a very successful year, so it's nice to bring this show home."

So when he returns to the city of his birth, will his mind wander back to those earliest days playing with local rock heroes Sweet Savage when his journey was just starting out?

"I'm sure I'll do that," he says, looking back to those formative days on Belfast's rock scene. "I do have a tendency to let my mind wander when I'm on stage.

"It's amazing the things you think about. Sometimes I'm thinking, 'What am I going to have for dinner?' but I'll probably be thinking about Sweet Savage and I'll be thinking about my parents and all the times they came to see me when I played there.

"Life marches on and we lose people along the way.

"It does serve as a reminder that we're all on borrowed time so get out there and do it while you can."

Def Leppard - Vivian Campbell
Def Leppard - Vivian Campbell

Def Leppard Hysteria is at the SSE Arena Belfast on December 2. Tickets from

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