Renowned cancer surgeon dies of cancer

June 5, 2009

The death of renowned cancer surgeon and researcher Professor Chris O'Brien is being mourned as "a huge loss" for Australia.

A state funeral will be held for Prof O'Brien, the famous face of television's RPA series who lost his own battle with brain cancer overnight in Sydney's Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.

His wife Gail, his children Adam, Juliette and James and other close family members were by his side.

His passing prompted a spontaneous outpouring of love and admiration.

"I believe Chris O'Brien has been a truly exceptional Australian," Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said on Friday.

Fellow surgeon Charlie Teo said Prof O'Brien "epitomised what a doctor ought to be like".

"He was a great gold standard by which doctors judge themselves," Dr Teo told ABC Radio.

"It's just a huge loss for not only medicine but for Australia."

In April, at the launch of the RPA's new cancer centre to which Prof O'Brien devoted most of his final years, Mr Rudd said: "I've come to respect him deeply, to admire him deeply, to love him deeply as a first-class human being."

Prof O'Brien's humanity and good humour endeared him to patients at the hospital and to the viewers of the real-life dramas in the long-running medical reality program RPA.

The public did not forget him as he faced death from the aggressive cancer first diagnosed in 2006.

When it was revealed his condition had deteriorated in recent days, his family was showered with gifts and good wishes.

"Gail, Chris' wife, has asked me to express the family's thanks for the tremendous support that has been shown by many people throughout Chris' illness and especially in the last few days," friend and colleague Professor Michael Boyer told reporters.

"They have received gifts, cards, flowers from so many people, many of whom they don't even know."

Prof O'Brien's enduring legacy will be the Lifehouse At RPA cancer treatment centre. Its construction begins at the end of 2009.

"His experience as a cancer patient cemented in his mind the need to integrate clinical cancer care, cancer research and cancer education, so that the rapid incorporation of research findings would offer the best possible opportunities for patients to recover from cancer," Prof Boyer said.

"And this will be Chris' legacy."

Despite the devastating news in November 2006 that he had an aggressive brain tumour, Prof O'Brien continued working to establish the Lifehouse centre.

"And thanks to his advocacy, his charisma, his courage, that dream is being realised, and it will be a worthy memorial of one of our greatest Australians, Chris O'Brien," federal Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull said.

Enduring several operations to alleviate his condition, Prof O'Brien maintained a positive attitude, his surgeon Dr Teo said.

"People face death in many different ways but he faced it with such dignity and tenacity," Dr Teo said.

"He knew that he was fighting a formidable enemy and yet he still remained very positive until the bitter end."

Australia's chief medical officer, Professor Jim Bishop, said Prof O'Brien matched in reality the personality he displayed on the RPA television program.

"He was very engaging and friendly," Prof Bishop, who helped found the Sydney Cancer Centre with Prof O'Brien in 1996, told ABC Radio.

"He was very caring (towards) the patients. He treated them with a lot of dignity, respect and was a great listener."

The medical profession needed more people like Prof O'Brien, who could talk to people as individuals and not just patients, Prof Bishop said.

NSW Premier Nathan Rees praised Prof O'Brien as "an extraordinary intellect and an extraordinary Australian", while federal Treasurer Wayne Swan, a cancer survivor, labelled him a courageous advocate for all cancer sufferers.

"He was so courageous to continue the campaign (after becoming ill), to lobby, to work for fellow patients," Mr Swan said.

"It says so much about the character of Chris O'Brien and the legacy he has left this country."


FORMER cancer surgeon Chris O'Brien has died in hospital after a three-year battle with brain cancer.

Professor O'Brien's family had gathered at his bedside after his condition significantly deteriorated on Wednesday.

The acclaimed surgeon and former face of the reality TV medical program RPA, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer in 2006.

In April, at a function to announce $100 million in federal funding for his Lifehouse at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital cancer treatment centre, he said he had suffered a regression.

He died overnight just hours after a visit by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

The former head and neck cancer specialist's obvious deterioration brought Mr Rudd to the verge of tears.

An earlier statement from Lifehouse at RPA said the surgeon was admitted to hospital on Wednesday and his family were with him.

"The O'Brien family would like to thank those who have supported Chris and his work with the Sydney Cancer Centre over the past few years," Lifehouse said.

"They request that his privacy now be respected during this very difficult time."

Building works on the project which will become Prof O'Brien's legacy begins in Camperdown at the end of 2009.

When completed in 2012 it will be Australia's largest cancer care centre.

Mr Rudd paid tribute to Prof O'Brien at April's function in Sydney, saying he considered the former surgeon a "friend" and "inspiration".

"In the two years since I've known Chris, I've come to respect him deeply, to admire him deeply, to love him deeply as a first class human being," Mr Rudd said.

"It is one of the terrible ironies of life that a man like Chris would be diagnosed with the very type of cancer he did so much to fight against with his own patients."

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It's an irony that he had to pass away from cancer as he is a cancer surgeon. He has helped a lot of patients and surely, he will never be forgotten. General Surgeon