Healthy Living

Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi Discusses Struggles with Lymphoma

Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi Discusses Struggles with Lymphoma

Photo credit: HomeofMetal_Fox_0659 by Guy Evans (flickr)

Tony Iommi is one of the few rock and roll legends who can say that they fulfilled the industry’s cliché act of getting the band back together. In 2011, the loss of a good friend brought the Black Sabbath guitarist Iommi back into contact with the band’s original lead vocalist, Ozzy Osbourne. The two agreed to meet in England and talk about the possibility of doing another Black Sabbath album with the band’s original members, a follow-up album to over 30 years of solo careers and alternating membership.

Although Osbourne was the one to suggest that the Sabbath members reunite for a new album, Iommi had been steeped in the band’s history himself. At the time, he was on a book tour for his autobiography, Iron Man, which chronicled his life and career with the band. As the tour came to a close, he and Osbourne managed to rally the band’s remaining members—bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward—for what would be Black Sabbath’s nineteenth and final studio recording.

The original members of the band met in LA at an underground studio, where Iommi showcased some original material that he had been working on. Everyone in the band was onboard, and the four members began rehearsing in quiet. They wanted to avoid the limelight, and split their time between Ozzy’s home studio outside of LA and in England. Iommi was pleased to find that Ozzy was far more engaged with the group than he had ever been, and for a moment, everything was perfect.

Iommi's discovery of lymphoma

While on the book tour, Iommi noticed a lump that had appeared in his groin. His doctor determined that it was a swollen gland, and prescribed Iommi antibiotics to help the swelling go down. Iommi finished out the book tour and began rehearsing with the original members of Black Sabbath in LA, waiting for the swelling to go down. His doctor had told him to see another doctor if in two weeks the swelling had not disappeared. To his dismay, it did not.

He went in to see another doctor, who prescribed him more antibiotics for an infection that had arisen as a result of a prostate complication. Iommi was dealing with two lumps and he assumed that they both were connected to his prostate complication. Despite the health issues, Iommi continued to go in for rehearsals. Ozzy repeatedly urged Iommi to go get his groin checked out, and Iommi decided that he would when he went in for his prostate operation.

Everything changed when he went in for the operation. The doctors decided to take out the lump in his groin while working on his prostate, and what they found would change Iommi’s life forever. The doctors told Iommi that they found lymphoma in the lump in his groin. He knew immediately that they meant cancer, and that his life was in grave danger. His mind rushed to the album, to the rehearsals, and to getting rid of the cancer as soon as possible, if at all possible.

Determination to stay positive

Iommi immediately determined that the cancer wouldn’t stop him. The following burst of treatments and recovery from the prostate operation left Iommi in a lot of pain, but he knew that he wanted to continue on with the album. The other members of the band flocked to England where Iommi could join in on studio sessions. Iommi says that his wife, Maria, and the support of his friends were the best possible thing for him to be surrounded by. He said that Ozzy and the band were behind him every step of the way.

When Iommi told Ozzy that he had lymphoma, the characteristically blunt vocalist said: “didn’t so and so die of that?” Iommi said that he had to laugh, and that Ozzy became one of his strongest supporters. They were there to talk with him, encourage him to rest, and help him carry on with the band’s ultimate goal of putting out their new studio album. Whenever he would start to fall into negative lines of thought, his wife and band members would bring him back and pick him up.

In addition to the support of his wife and friends, Iommi received support from his fans and other celebrities who had battled cancer. Lance Armstrong and Jon Lord (keyboardist for the band Deep Purple) both sent their support and offered to help in any way. Iommi would laugh whenever the group was together and taking a break from the music. The seasoned heavy metal veterans would come out of a heavy recording session and start cracking jokes about putting their hearing aids in. Through it all, Iommi remained positive, held up by the love and support of his wife and friends.

Sabbath's final hours

Black Sabbath made the official announcement on 11/11/11. Fans of the original Black Sabbath albums went crazy, and the band prepared for what would be their final tour. A brief complication arose when drummer Bill Ward suddenly left the group, deciding that his contract was unsatisfactory. Despite the conflict, the band was able to move forward with a new drummer, Brad Wilk.

The album was recorded at Shangri-La studios in Malibu, where producer Rick Rubin was intent on capturing the sound of the original Black Sabbath work. Iommi tracked his parts and his solos live, pushing himself hard to get the perfect sound and lyrical riffs into the album. He also shared in writing the album’s lyrics. The band pulled off an eight-track, nearly hour-long album which was released in June of 2013.

The cancer will most likely return

Doctors told Iommi that his cancer would most likely not go away. They gave him a 30% of his cancer going into remission, and staying in remission for good. He was able to complete the prescribed chemotherapy and radiation therapy sessions, at which point he only needed to go in for routine blood tests. Finally, in 2016, Iommi’s cancer went into full remission, although he remains strongly on the defensive, as it can return at any time.

Iommi laughs at the contrast between the old days of Black Sabbath and the current state of the band. Though life on the road, especially as a rock and roll band, used to carry all of the old stigmas and vices that such a lifestyle does—the band members are all taking good care of themselves now. Iommi’s wife makes the band tea and other healthy snacks between shows and recording sessions, and Iommi makes sure to get to bed as early as he can. The bandmates laugh about going to bed as they remember their past lives steeped in various vices.

Of his cancer, Iommi says: “To me, it’s never going to go away; it’s always going to be there.” This does not stop him from pursuing life to the fullest, albeit with a few more challenges along the way. He expects the cancer to return, but takes life one day at a time, claiming that “every day is a winner, really.” His characteristically positive mood drives him forward each day, and he makes sure not to push himself too hard to the point that his body starts to suffer. He remains focused on doing what he loves, every day.