Chris O’Brien Lifehouse

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The Chris O’Brien Lifehouse is the vision of a very special man – Chris O’Brien, who inspired people through his work as a cancer specialist and his own battle with an aggressive brain tumour.

Chris’ legacy lives on in the Lifehouse … a not-for-profit centre that provides state of the art research and treatment options for cancer sufferers. Meet Associate Professor Carsten Palme and local cancer patient Elaine Madden, who share how the Lifehouse is benefiting people all around NSW …

Associate Professor Carsten Palme
Lifehouse

What’s your role with the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse?

I’m a consultant surgeon and director of head and neck surgery at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse cancer hospital. Patients are usually referred to me with either a diagnosis of head and neck cancer or a problem such as a persistent sore throat, change in voice or a neck lump. 

I’ll assess the patient by taking a thorough history and perform a clinical examination. I’ll regularly perform tests such as biopsies and order imaging studies such as CT scans, MRI or PET scans. 

Patients with complex head and neck cancers will be discussed at our weekly multidisciplinary team meeting and often managed with both surgery and/or chemoradiotherapy. I always work as part of a team of other surgeons, medical and radiation oncologists, speech therapists and clinical nurse specialists, in order to develop the best personalised and evidence-based management plan for each individual patient. 

My role is to routinely perform surgery, including using the latest minimally invasive and keyhole techniques, in order to successfully remove a patient’s head and neck tumour. 

After the completion of treatment, I will follow up my patients personally for a period of up to five years. I’ll see my patients both at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse in Sydney or closer to home in our satellite clinics in Port Macquarie, Orange and Nowra. 

How did you become involved with Lifehouse?

I have been a consultant head and neck surgeon for nearly 20 years and was lucky enough to know Professor O’Brien personally. I had the great fortune of benefiting from his teachings and expertise throughout my training. 

I took a position at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital six years ago and transitioned to Lifehouse when it opened in 2015. In 2016 I was appointed the Director of the Head and Neck Department.

What do you feel are the advantages for cancer patients who have access to the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse?

Chris O’Brien Lifehouse is a comprehensive cancer centre, where a patient’s cancer care comes first and is the sole priority, and doesn’t compete with other specialties.

The clear advantage for head and neck cancer patients treated by Chris O’Brien Lifehouse is that they are treated in a prompt, personalised and evidence-based way by a highly experienced multidisciplinary team of doctors, nurses and allied health professionals. In addition, we work very closely and in parallel with the local medical experts and healthcare infrastructure, in order to provide the best care possible for our patients. 

Head and neck cancer is incredibly complex and diverse and includes more than 10 different types of cancer. There is a high concentration of vital nerves and vessels in the head and neck region, meaning that surgery is often complicated and challenging. 

Treatment can affect speech and swallowing, and the lasting traces are very visible compared to other types of cancer.

Having a concentration of cancer experts enables us to treat the most challenging and difficult cancers that no one else can.

A recent report from the NSW Cancer Institute has confirmed that Chris O’Brien Lifehouse treats by far the most numbers of complex head and neck cancer patients when compared with any other major public or private hospital in NSW. 

The result of this has been that our patients enjoy a better outcome in terms of preservation of function and survival when compared with the state average.  

What are your hopes and goals for the future of the Lifehouse?

My vision for Chris O’Brien Lifehouse is to become a recognised centre of excellence and leader in the management, education, research and prevention of head and neck cancer. 

The aim of our regional clinics is for all patients with head and neck cancers to be able to promptly access the best level of care and enjoy the benefits from our multidisciplinary team approach.

We hope to be able to inform both the general public, patients and medical community of our service and offer our expertise.

We would hope that the community recognises the need and value of our expert head and neck cancer service and encourages our local and state governments to support us in the future.

Thanks Professor Palme. 

Elaine Madden
76 year old cancer patient 

What’s your background in the Greater Port Macquarie area?

My husband and I live halfway between Taree and Port Macquarie. We’ve lived here for 40 years; we moved from Rouse Hill in Sydney.

Tell us about your cancer journey … 

I went to the dentist because of a bleeding gum; the dentist then sent me for a biopsy, which came back to show I had tongue cancer – this was in April 2016.

This led to a few trips down to Newcastle. I had quite a few tests down there, but because I only have 30 per cent lung function (due to emphysema) I was deemed inoperable. The option was to have radiation treatment – and it worked for about six months, but the cancer came back.

My oncologist in Port Macquarie, Dr Jacques Hill, arranged for me to see Professor Carsten Palme and his team at the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse.

Professor Palme and his team operated on me in 2017 in Sydney – it was about a 10 – 11 hour operation. The whole team, including the anaethetist, Murray, was absolutely marvellous. 

When the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse established a regional head and neck clinic in Port Macquarie, what did this mean for you?

It’s wonderful … we don’t have to travel to Sydney once a month to see Professor Palme. It means the world! I’m fortunate that my husband can still drive, and I have people in Sydney I can stay with, but for most elderly people it wouldn’t be so easy; they wouldn’t be able to afford the trips to Sydney. 

If people can receive a diagnosis and follow up treatment in Port Macquarie and not have to travel to the city, I really feel like half their battle has been won.

How are you these days?

I’m doing well. The cancer is gone; I’ve had scans, and there’s no sign of it – which is wonderful. I have a little bit of damage to my jaw bone – possibly because of the radiation, and Professor Palme is assessing this situation now. 

I can honestly say if it wasn’t for Lifehouse, Professor Palme and his team, I wouldn’t be here today. I’m so grateful they took the chance to operate on me; I can’t speak highly enough of them.

Thanks Elaine.

Interviews: Jo Robinson.

For more info about the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, visit www.mylifehouse.org.au
Port Macquarie Head and Neck Clinic – Ph: (02) 8514 0432; Email: headandneck@lh.org.au

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