Remembering Chris O’Brien
In his public life, Professor Chris O’Brien was a talented surgeon and a tireless advocate for the very best in cancer care. In private, however, he was much more: a charismatic magician, a steadfast supporter, a good guy. Those who knew him best describe the many facets of Chris O’Brien.
Professor Chris O’Brien AO
MS MD FRCS (HON) FRACS
3 Jan 1952 – 4 Jun 2009
Professor Chris O’Brien was a man of leadership, vision and courage. He inspired people, both through his work as a cancer specialist and through his own three-year battle with an aggressive brain tumour.
Chris transformed his personal adversity into a national opportunity, using his experience to fight so much harder for cancer patients and their families. Chris’ vision was for an integrated cancer treatment centre, where patients will no longer have to navigate their way through all the different elements of dealing with their illness alone. His vision was realised with the opening of Chris O’Brien Lifehouse to patients on 19 November 2013.
Born in 1952, Chris grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney and studied medicine at the University of Sydney, graduating in 1976. After completing his residency and surgical training at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, (RPAH), Chris specialised in head and neck surgery and completed clinical fellowships in England and the USA before returning to Australia in 1987 to join the staff at RPAH as a consultant head and neck surgeon.
There he contributed to the expansion of the clinical service, making it one of the largest in the country. Chris also established a basic research and international clinical fellowship program under the Sydney Head and Neck Cancer Institute, which he founded in 2002.
Professor Chris O’Brien held two postgraduate degrees from the University of Sydney – a Masters of Surgery for his basic research in microvascular surgery and a Doctorate in Medicine for his internationally recognised work on the management of metastatic cancer involving the parotid gland and neck, particularly cutaneous melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer.
He was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England and in 1998 founded the Australian and New Zealand Head and Neck Society, a multidisciplinary society comprising surgeons of all disciplines, radiation and medical oncologists and allied health professionals, and of which Chris was President in 2004.
In 2003 Professor O’Brien became Director of the Sydney Cancer Centre, based at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. He developed a proposal to transform the Sydney Cancer Centre into a world-class comprehensive cancer centre – Lifehouse.
Chris was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour in November 2006 and stepped down from all of his clinical and administrative positions to focus on his therapy and treatment.
Chris maintained a positive and confident outlook throughout the following few years undergoing numerous operations and a variety of treatments including complementary therapies to ease the symptoms and side effects he was experiencing. He continued to work tirelessly on the promotion and future construction of an integrated cancer centre (Lifehouse), which would focus on the needs and support cancer patients, their families and carers.
The proposal to transform the Sydney Cancer Centre into a world-class comprehensive cancer centre gained the backing of the federal and state governments and was officially launched by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in April 2009. On Australia Day 2005 Chris was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for his services to medicine and on the eve of his death (4 June 2009) he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO).