Def Leppard guitarist defies cancer diagnosis

March 29, 2019 | by Samantha Bonar

Def Leppard London O2 Def Leppard guitarist Vivian Campbell is taking the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab. Photographer: Kevin Nixon
Cancer has no respect for nasty guitar licks. More than 9,000 people are diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in the United States each year, and in 2013, Def Leppard guitarist Vivian Campbell was one of them. (Def Leppard is being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 29.)
 
During a career spanning four decades, Campbell has performed with such groups as Thin Lizzy, Dio, Whitesnake and Lou Gramm. The Ireland native joined Def Leppard in 1992.
 
At age 50, Campbell had been suffering from fatigue, intermittent fever, night sweats and a nagging cough for almost a year while touring with the band. He’d visited doctors multiple times and downed several courses of antibiotics. But he couldn’t shake his “infection.”
 
Finally, his doctor ordered a chest X-ray. A CT scan and lymph node biopsy followed in quick succession, and Campbell was confronted with the shocking diagnosis: Stage 2b Hodgkin's lymphoma.
 
Hodgkin's lymphoma occurs mainly in individuals between 16 and 34 years of age and those over age 55. Lymphoma is a general term for cancers that develop in the lymph system, part of the body’s immune system. Hodgkin's lymphoma is a type of lymphoma that develops in the white blood cells. While it can start in the lymph nodes, it can spread to almost any organ or tissue, including the liver, bone marrow and spleen.
 
Originally treated by an oncologist in Santa Monica, California, Campbell underwent six months of chemotherapy. Unfortunately, within a few months of finishing treatment, signs of cancer returned. At that point he was referred to Stephen Forman, M.D., the Francis & Kathleen McNamara Distinguished Chair in Hematology and Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation at City of Hope.
 
Forman placed him on a tough chemotherapy regimen in preparation for an autologous stem cell transplant. “All this time I was still working. I was still touring with Def Leppard,” Campbell recalled. “I started the tour with hair, and I ended up with no hair and no eyebrows.” For a heavy metal guitarist, losing his long hair made him feel vulnerable and exposed. However, “it really made me focus on my performance as a musician, as a singer and a guitar player. It helped me look inward, and to focus on that. I couldn’t go out there and pretend to be a rock star. I was a cancer patient. It was liberating in a way,” he said. He bought a wig but never wore it, deciding instead to “rock” the bald look.
 
In October 2014, Campbell underwent his stem cell transplant — which “didn’t work either.” Within a few months, the cancer was back. The next suggested step was radiation, but Campbell was resistant. He asked Forman about a new immunotherapy drug he’d read about called pembrolizumab (Keytruda). Forman jumped on board, suggesting he join a clinical trial of pembrolizumab being coordinated by Alex Herrera, M.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation at City of Hope. Campbell began pembrolizumab infusions in 2015.
 
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted accelerated approval to pembrolizumab in March 2017 for treatment of Hodgkin's lymphoma. The approval came after a clinical trial found that 22 percent of patients who were treated with pembrolizumab underwent complete remission.
 
“Compared to chemo, it’s so easy,” Campbell said. “I’ve had practically no side effects. The hardest part of it for me to this day continues to be the scheduling because I travel so much for work.” Campbell receives pembrolizumab infusions roughly once a month. Although pembrolizumab causes an average remission of up to 24 months, the medication has held his cancer at bay for almost four years.
 
“He is doing extremely well, in large part due to modern innovations in immune-based therapy as a treatment for cancer,” Forman said.
 
“I consider myself very, very fortunate that I’ve been able to find this treatment that I’ve responded to so well,” Campbell said. “Being able to continue my life and continue my work I think has been a big part of being able to come through all of this. My work is what keeps me alive. My bandmates initially wanted me to stay home and convalesce. I’m stubborn and I’m Irish and I never wanted to do that. I’ve always refused to capitulate to the cancer. I just wanted to give cancer the big middle finger and go on.”
 
Forman’s plan is to keep Campbell on the pembrolizumab as long as it is working or until something better comes along. That is fine with Campbell. He feels well and his outlook is positive.
 
“I’ve always been a glass half-full kind of person, but now with cancer, my glass is brimming,” he said. “You really kind of recalibrate your thinking about each and every day in life. You look at your life a different way and you look at your priorities a different way. It helped me become a better guitar player. It helped me look inward. ... It's just been good for me. I kind of always look at it as when life gives you these sorts of obstacles, you have two choices. You can give in or you can fight, you know?"
 
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