“Every day I feel around for lumps and bumps,” he said. “Every time I get a pain in my stomach I think, ‘Oh God, it’s cancer.’ It’s horrible. I even dream about it. But that’s my life now. The surgeon told me he doesn’t expect the cancer to go away. So, I look at life differently now. I could be here another 10 years or just one year — I don’t know.”
Iommi’s journey began while on a book tour behind his 2011 memoir, Iron Man. Originally attributing a painful lump near his groin to ongoing prostate issues, he finally sought medical following a talk with bandmate Ozzy Osbourne. (The singer’s own wife, Sharon, underwent chemotherapy for colon cancer in 2002.) “When the doctors told me I had cancer I thought, ‘That’s it then,’” said Iommi, who was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma in early 2012. “Cancer was death as far as I was concerned.”
At the time of his diagnosis, Iommi and Sabbath were recording the band’s comeback album, 13. It was a subsequent in-studio interaction with Osbourne that yielded the first moment of brevity for Iommi. “Ozzy came in and said, ‘Oh yeah, didn’t so and so die from that?’ Which is exactly not what you want to hear. I thought, ‘Thanks a lot, Mr. Bloody Cheerful.’ But that’s Ozzy all over, he always puts his foot in it.”
Iommi also found humor in how the studio environment changed following his diagnosis: “In the good old days there was cocaine everywhere,” he said. “This time we had tea and coffee and health drinks that my wife, Maria, made for me because I’ve had to change my diet.” Even with loads of “un-rock ‘n’ roll” activities (going to bed by 7 p.m., for instance), Iommi is “holding on” to his daily glass of red wine.
In 2013, ongoing treatments restricted a lot of what Iommi could do, leading to a few promotional delays behind 13. (Iommi has issues because flying affects the state of his blood cells.) However, by early 2014, Iommi said he was feeling healthy and optimistic, and looked forward to continuing his work. To maintain his health, Sabbath planned their touring around Iommi’s treatments, which involved going back home every six weeks for two-week blocks.
Despite being well aware of his chances (“There’s a 30% chance that it could return”), Iommi said he is doing his best to keep a stiff upper lip. “Sometimes I wonder if I should try to live a more peaceful life. Then I think, ‘I don’t want to let the illness take over.’ After all, I enjoy where I’m at now. I’ve even become a guest lecturer at Coventry University after they awarded me an honorary doctorate. If someone had suggested that to me years ago I’d have turned it down, but I’ve been through a lot and I’ve learned from it, so it feels good to pass that on.”