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 to create an integrated cancer treatment centre so that patients would no longer have to navigate their way through all the different elements of dealing with their illness alone. His vision will soon be realised with the completion of The Chris O’Brien Lifehouse at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney in 2013.
Born in 1952, Chris grew up in the Western suburbs of Sydney and was educated at Marist Brothers Parramatta. He went on to study 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 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, and also established a comprehensive head and neck database, now the largest in Australia with clinical data on over 8,000 patients and detailed results of over 5,000 operations.
He also established a basic research program and an international clinical fellowship program under the umbrella of the Sydney Head and Neck Cancer Institute which he founded in 2002.
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 authored over 110 scientific papers and 17 book chapters. He was honoured with invitations to many countries and institutions as a visiting professor and guest lecturer, including invitations to give prestigious named lectures. He was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England in recognition of his contribution to the training of young British surgeons.
In 1998 Chris 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.
Chris was a member of the American Head and Neck Society and was recognised by that body when invited to join the Council in 2005. He was further recognised by the inauguration of a lecture and a travelling fellowship named in his honour.
In 2003 Professor O’Brien became Director of the Sydney Cancer Centre based at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and the University of Sydney while maintaining all of his clinical, teaching and research responsibilities. He developed a proposal to transform the Sydney Cancer Centre into a $250 million world class comprehensive cancer centre – Lifehouse at RPA – and the project was officially launched by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in April 2009. The now named Chris O’Brien Lifehouse at RPA is under construction and will open its doors in 2013.
On Australia Day 2005 Chris O’Brien 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 by the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. He was posthumously awarded AO by the Governor General, Her Excellency Quentin Bryce.
He was a devoted husband to Gail and father of three children Adam, Juliette and James with many interests including running, skiing, reading and playing guitar.
Unfortunately, in November 2006 Chris was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour 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 at RPA) which would focus on the needs and support cancer patients, their families and carers.
In October 2008 he published his autobiography, ‘Never Say Die’, which has become a national best-seller.