Reporter: Peter Overton
Producers: Mick O'Donnell, Julia Timms
Even before Peter Overton met him, he had a feeling Professor Chris O'Brien was special. Like many of you, Peter first saw him on the television, on RPA.
With his warmth, his decency, his humanity, Chris just lit up the screen. And Peter can assure you, in the flesh he's exactly the same. One of the good guys, one of Australia's most renowned cancer surgeons, dedicated to saving the lives of others.
But in one of those devastating twists of fate, he's now fighting to save his own life. Not only that, it's a brain tumour — one of the deadliest cancers around. In fact, only a handful of patients survive.
Naturally, Chris O'Brien's determined to be one of them.
CHRIS O'BRIEN: This is really backs-to-the-wall time. It is high risk surgery — there is no doubt about that. I don't think I will die on the operating table.
PETER OVERTON: Chris O'Brien is battling brain cancer. He knows it's incurable but he is not giving up.
CHRIS O'BRIEN: This is actually bigger than I predicted.
PETER OVERTON: So today he is risking it all. This is radical, dangerous surgery — a last-ditch attempt to win some precious time.
CHRIS O'BRIEN: This is the last go at this — there's no doubt about that. We probably won't get another go at this.
PETER OVERTON: So many times, Chris O'Brien has been the surgeon with the patients life in his hands. It is almost impossible to believe that today Chris's life is in the hands of his colleagues. Chris knows that this operation will absolutely determine his future. What a terrific day, Chris.
CHRIS O'BRIEN: It is absolutely glorious. We are the luckiest people on earth.
PETER OVERTON: Chris O'Brien is the most positive man I have ever known. It's interesting … you consider yourself lucky.
CHRIS O'BRIEN: How could you call yourself unlucky and be doing this?
PETER OVERTON: When we met in January, Chris had already had his first bout of major surgery and weeks of chemotherapy, yet you wouldn't know it.
CHRIS O'BRIEN: I've got nothing but positive thoughts about the future, nothing but positive thoughts about the people and things around me and still have things to do, so, yeah, I'm lucky.
PETER OVERTON: Over the next few months, I saw this determination tested to the limit as Chris faced the devastating ups and downs of life with cancer.
CHRIS O'BRIEN: If you said to me, 'Look, this is my last go, I have one life, I'm not ready to go yet ...'
PETER OVERTON: It's the cruellest irony. Professor Chris O'Brien is himself a leading cancer surgeon. Most of us know him from Nine's dramatic real-life medical show RPA. But now at 55, the doctor has become the patient. I think a lot of their viewers will get a shock when they see Professor Chris O'Brien without his hair.
CHRIS O'BRIEN: I would love to be around in 10 years' time complaining being a bald man.
PETER OVERTON: Last November, after returning from an overseas trip, Chris suddenly developed severe headaches and nausea. His wife, Gail, was worried and took him to his own hospital, RPA. The diagnosis was immediate — a malignant brain tumour needing urgent surgery.
CHRIS O'BRIEN: And Gail and I had a horrible, horrible night that Sunday night I came home where we just cried, cried all night. And even recalling it, I'm filled with emotion because we moved on from that but it was the horror from Gail's point of view of her whole world collapsing.
GAIL O'BRIEN: I know when I wake up in the morning if it's going to be a difficult day. It's a good idea not to go to church sometimes. You get a bit melancholy. I can't imagine life without him.
CHRIS O'BRIEN: But you would have life without me.
PETER OVERTON: Chris hasn't worked since the operation. Courses of radiotherapy and chemo have sapped his strength, but the upside is more time with his family, which means plenty of teasing from daughter Juliet and the youngest son James.
JULIET O'BRIEN: Just spend every day, day in, day out, we're all at home when usually dad wouldn't be home very much.
CHRIS O'BRIEN: But I think that's been valuable, don't you?
JAMES O'BRIEN: It's really put us out of our comfort zone.
CHRIS O'BRIEN: Seeing too much of each other?
JAMES O'BRIEN: Yeah, it's like, seriously, Dad, you know, I love you and all.
PETER OVERTON: The air of uncertainty means every family milestone takes on even greater significance — like the day Chris's eldest son Adam graduated from the NSW Police Academy.
CHRIS O'BRIEN: If I can find him — Addie! G'day. I couldn't be a prouder parent and Gale's the same. A very emotional day. I don't know why I'm so emotional but that's the way, but we are proud and delighted to be here and to take part. This is just wonderful.
PETER OVERTON: Adam, you said this is very much about your dad today, wasn't it?
ADAM O'BRIEN: Since dad got sick, I wanted to do it for him.
PETER OVERTON: Why did you want to do it for your dad?
ADAM O'BRIEN: I know he wants to see me achieve my dream and this is what it is. So, here I am.
PETER OVERTON: The warmth and passion in Chris's own family life is something he has always managed to carry over into his career as a surgeon.
CHRIS O'BRIEN: What people want from the outset is to be embraced by a positive doctor who says, 'Peter, we've got a bad diagnosis here, but let's get you fixed up, let's sort it out and get you on to treatment and let's get you fixed', and embrace the person.
PETER OVERTON: Now Chris needs the same positive approach in his own treatment. His first operation in November removed 95 percent of the tumour, but this is a relentless, aggressive cancer. Three months down the track, it's time for a scan to see if it has grown back. It's good news — this time.
CHRIS O'BRIEN: I don't to be bashed over the head with the potential outcomes. I will seek my own outcome. I will seek nothing but an absolutely successful outcome.
PETER OVERTON: Even though as a doctor — well, I don't want to bash you over the head with it — but there is a one percent to two percent survival rate, or put another way, 98 percent will die.
CHRIS O'BRIEN: Why can't I be in the one to two percent? It is not zero. Why can't I be in that group? You get one go and you grasp it with both hands and you don't stop. The thing I have learnt is you never ever give up.
PETER OVERTON: It seems remarkable, but in the midst of his own disease, Chris O'Brien is crusading for a better deal for all cancer victims. His dream is to establish specialised cancer units throughout the country. At this recent dinner, he raised to $4 million. You are on a crusade as well, aren't you?
CHRIS O'BRIEN: It is as a crusade and if I can leverage off my illness to push this agenda then I think it is appropriate that I do it. I don't think anyone in Australia should have to go overseas for this care.
PETER OVERTON: But all too soon, Chris's public campaign is interrupted by a new crisis in his personal battle to survive. The cancer has come back stronger than ever. It is time for even more radical surgery. This operation and may paralyse him, even rob him of his sight.
CHRIS O'BRIEN: That might prevent me from reading.
PETER OVERTON: Which you love so much.
CHRIS O'BRIEN: Which I love, which I really love, but I am prepared to accept that.
DR CHARLIE TEO: I guess, Peter, without sounding too gloomy and doomy, things aren't looking good at all, really. He's got the worst type of cancer known to mankind.
PETER OVERTON: Chris has turned to a surgeon renowned for his aggressive approach. Charlie Teo is prepared to do what other surgeons won't.
DR CHARLIE TEO: I have promised Chris that I'm going to be as aggressive as I can because it's his only chance of surviving the year possibly being paralysed versus wanted to stay alive for as long as possible.
PETER OVERTON: And throw into the mix here a colleague and a mate.
DR CHARLIE TEO: Yeah, there is a bit of emotion here as well.
PETER OVERTON: Good luck, Charlie.
DR CHARLIE TEO: Yeah, thanks, Peter. Thank you.
PETER OVERTON: For Dr Teo and two other neurosurgeons, it is intensive, painstaking work. Take the wrong tissue and it would be disaster but they need to get every last bit.
DR CHARLIE TEO: But at this point here I can be very radical. Scissors. But he needs it, I mean, if we are going to prevent any chance at all.
PETER OVERTON: It looks like you're taking a hell of a lot of tissue out, Charlie.
DR CHARLIE TEO: I am, Peter, I am. I don't know if I am doing the right thing or not, but this is what I would want someone to do for me.
PETER OVERTON: So effectively are you trying to give Chris some extra time?
DR CHARLIE TEO: That is exactly what we're trying to do and for all we know, the cure for brain cancer might be just around the corner.
PETER OVERTON: After three hours, the operation is over.
DR CHARLIE TEO: Well done. It looks great. Okay, lights on, thanks.
ANAESTHETIST: Chris, we are all finished. Operation is all over. You are just waking up. Just going to pop up a little mask on, okay? Feeling okay? Good man.
CHRIS O'BRIEN: How did it go?
ANAESTHETIST: It went very well Chris. Gives you thumbs-up. That is brilliant.
DR CHARLIE TEO: Chris, you moving? Oh, fantastic. Oh, good boy. See your other side? Wiggle your fingers. Wiggle your toes. Oh, fantastic. I think you are going to be very happy, really happy. Very, very radical, saw normal brain, took normal rim of brain, everything. I think you're going to be really happy, old son. Good. No, no, no, it didn't look too bad. In fact some of the areas look pretty low-gradish. It's all good news. I will go and say hello to Gail. Okay. Charlie, nice to meet you. Things have gone really well. He will be able to go home tomorrow. No problems.
GAIL O'BRIEN: My heart is racing.
DR CHARLIE TEO: It comes with no guarantees but at least we have given him a fighting chance.
PETER OVERTON: The operation has given Chris O'Brien the reprieve he was hoping for. But he knows only too well the odds are against him. Right now, though, there's so much living to be done. Perhaps it is because Chris has seen so many others struggle for life that he has learnt to value every precious moment.
CHRIS O'BRIEN: I'm incredibly lucky I've got time with my beautiful wife, with my children — I can continue to teach them, and influence them, mentor them. I want to learn more, I want to play the guitar a bit better, have time to practise and have a great happy life going forward and desire it's as long, as long it is it can be.
PETER OVERTON: Well, everyone wishes you that long, long life.
CHRIS O'BRIEN: Thanks, Peter.