On 4 June 2019 it will be ten years since Professor Chris O’Brien AO died from a malignant brain tumour.
In memory of the much-loved head and neck cancer surgeon and compassionate star of reality TV show RPA, we have planned a program of events to celebrate his unique legacy.
From doctor to patient
Chris O’Brien was a nationally and internationally renowned head and neck cancer surgeon. At the time of his diagnosis, he was director of the Sydney Cancer Centre based at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, professor of surgery at the University of Sydney, director of cancer services for the Sydney South West Area Health Service and founding director of the Sydney Head and Neck Cancer Institute.
But Chris was also a nationally recognised personality as a respected, compassionate surgeon in the reality television series RPA.
At the height of his career, Chris was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme – the most lethal type of brain cancer. He was given six to 12 months to live but survived another two-and-a-half years thanks to aggressive treatment. He underwent five craniotomies (brain surgery), radiotherapy, chemotherapy and a series of complementary treatments.
Chris refused to take his poor prognosis lying down, instead grasping on to the hope he so often offered to his patients. He said, “There really is only one important word and that word is hope. Everyone needs hope. We live on hope.”
It was through crossing the clinical line from doctor to patient that Chris understood that cancer treatment needed to be holistic and patient-centred.
“Tumour as a gift”: a fierce advocate for cancer patients
Chris transformed his personal adversity into national opportunity by using his experience and unique “moral authority” (as former Prime Minister Tony Abbott said), to fight harder for cancer patients and their families.
With rare insight, he viewed his diagnosis with terminal cancer as “a gift” and used his remaining time to advocate for the first comprehensive cancer centre in NSW.
His vision was for a comprehensive cancer treatment centre that would bring all the services a cancer patient needs under one roof. This included surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and complementary therapies, meaning patients would no longer have to navigate alone the many different elements of treatment. What’s more, the centre would be underpinned by research, giving patients access to the latest developments in cancer care.
The ultimate networker, Chris fought unwaveringly for the facility to be fully funded and supported by the broader community, persuading the NSW Government to provide the land and then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to commit $150 million to building the centre.
His wife, Gail O’Brien AO, recalls watching Chris continue to work up to the last days of his life.
“In my husband’s final months, weeks, even in his final days, Chris worked tirelessly to push the project along, to get it to a point of viability.
“The tumour and five craniotomies had left him hemiplegic on his left side. I remember him sitting at his desk, his paralysed left arm hanging down by his side, as he tapped out emails and documents with just the index finger of his right hand.
“People would come to the house to see Chris and discuss this comprehensive cancer centre in the making. It was as if he would soon leave on a long journey, and we were all getting advice and final instructions before he left.”
On 17 April 2009, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse was launched at NSW Government House. Just six weeks later, on 4 June 2009, Chris died aged 57. On 11 June 2009, Chris was farewelled by the Australian public at a state funeral at St Mary’s Cathedral.
Chris O’Brien Lifehouse opened to outpatients on 19 November 2013 and for inpatient services in February 2015, in what was the realisation of Chris’s vision.
We have planned the following program of events and activities throughout the month of June to commemorate this important occasion. Join our community of staff, patients, families, carers and volunteers to remember this remarkable and charismatic man.
Musical performances in the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse Atrium
Date: Tuesday, 4 June 2019 (Anniversary of Chris’s death) and Wednesday 5 June 2019
Col Joye, Australian pioneer rock singer-songwriter of The Joy Boys and a close friend of Chris’s, will perform the songs Chris loved at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse. He will be joined by friend and guitarist Nick Bennett.
The Marist Brothers Choir from Chris’s Alma Mater will perform on Tuesday afternoon and on Wednesday Ben Noir and his French band will sing songs close to Francophile Chris’s heart.
Tuesday 4 June
11am Dr Nick Bennett
1pm Col Joye, Dr Nick Bennett and Phil Crenigan
2pm Marist Brothers Choir
Wednesday 5 June
1pm Ben Noir
ChrisChat series – lunchtime conversations about cancer care
Date: first week of June (3 — 7 June)
Time: various (see below)
Every day throughout the first week of June, experts from different disciplines at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse will take part in a series of free lunchtime conversations (known as ChrisChats) about different topics in cancer treatment and healthcare, open to all.
Gail O’Brien and those who knew Chris well, as well as those who never met him, will share their knowledge and experience in a series of intimate chats covering topics including compassion in healthcare, the impact of art and music on wellbeing and the promise offered by personalised medicine.
Full program here.
“Community of Hope” portrait exhibition opening
Date: Thursday, 27 June 2019
Our achievements over the past 10 years are only possible thanks to our generous, compassionate and committed supporters. This exhibition honours those who make an impact at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse each day through the stories of a few. It is this community that helps make Chris O’Brien Lifehouse a place of healing and hope. This exhibition is in conjunction with Artist-in-Residence photographer, Tim Jones, who has generously donated his time and talent to make this exhibit possible.
Special ChrisChat with international guest, Randal Weber MD: ‘Putting the patient at the heart of everything we do’
Date: Friday, 28 June 2019
Randal Weber MD is a well-known head and neck surgeon at the renowned MD Anderson Comprehensive Cancer Centre at the University of Texas. In his new role as chief patient experience officer of the centre, Dr Weber has unique expertise in patient-centred care.
Visiting from the USA to speak at the inaugural Chris O’Brien Symposium, Dr Weber will give a special ChrisChat on the subject of patient experience. He will share his passion for patient care and why he and his staff strive to offer patients the best possible healthcare experience.
Inaugural Chris O’Brien Symposium: On the Shoulders of Giants: Past, Present & Future of Head & Neck Cancer
Date: Saturday, 29 June 2019
The inaugural Chris O’Brien AO Symposium will bring ‘giants’ of head and neck cancer treatment to Chris O’Brien Lifehouse in Sydney.
Some of the most eminent leaders in the field of head and neck cancer (nationally and internationally) will come to speak at this event which celebrates the legacy of Prof Chris O’Brien and the great strides that continue to be made in head and neck cancer.
The event will be of interest all health professionals and students as well as interested member of the public, not just those working in cancer.
Video series: Remembering Prof Chris O’Brien AO
Chris O’Brien lives on fondly in the memories of Australians who watched RPA or who followed his efforts to establish the first comprehensive cancer centre in New South Wales. This video series delves into the memories of people who knew him well. In a series of candid interviews with colleagues and friends we get to see another side of Chris. We hear about the performer, the supporter, the good guy, the charismatic magician and many other facets of the respected public figure.