Recognising a life lived for hope

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Renowned cancer surgeon Professor Chris O’Brien lived by one word – hope.

He offered it in spades to his patients and 10 years ago, it was something he grasped onto in his own life.

Tuesday 4 June 2019 marks 10 years since Chris died from a malignant brain tumour.

The Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, the comprehensive cancer care centre he campaigned so hard for, has planned a series of events to commemorate his life and legacy.

Chris O’Brien was a nationally and internationally renowned head and neck 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.

Chris was also a nationally recognised personality as a compassionate and much-loved surgeon in the reality television series RPA.

At the height of his career, Chris was diagnosed wth glioblastoma multiforme – the most lethal type of brain cancer.

Chris refused to take his poor prognosis lying down, instead grasping on to the hope he so often offered to his patients.

“There really is only one word and that word is hope,” he said. “

“Everyone needs hope. We live on hope.”

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 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 is 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,” she said.

“The tumour and five craniotomies had left him hemiplegic on his left side.

“I remember his 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 Friday, April 17, 2009, the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse was launched at NSW Government House.

 Just six weeks later, on Thursday June 4, 2009, Chris died, aged 57. A week later he was farewelled by the Australian public at a state funeral at St Mary’s Cathedral.

Chris O’Brien Lifehouse developed after his death. It opened to outpatients in November 2013 and for inpatient services in February 2019, the realisation of Chris’ vision.

A series of commemorative events are planned to celebrate Chris’ life and legacy including concerts, a portrait exhibition opening, symposium and special “Q and A” sessions with a range of healthcare experts during the month of June.

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