Pay it Forward: Philip O’Brien advocates for cancer patients, research

Philip O’Brien
Philip O’Brien Credit: Jake Hill

Last updated on April 28th, 2020 at 02:42 pm

Philip O’Brien
Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren
Nonprofit served: American Cancer Society
Service: Board member for ACS Cancer Action Network

From offering rides to the hospital, to knitting caps for chemotherapy patients, to advocating for more research dollars, Phil O’Brien says everyone has a part to play in the fight against cancer.

For O’Brien, an attorney with Milwaukee-based Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren, his newfound role is board member for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the national organization’s nonpartisan advocacy arm.

O’Brien has been involved with the ACS for more than 15 years, ever since his then legal assistant, Ellen Persik, encouraged him to raise money for the organization. Soon after, Persik – who was instrumental in launching the first Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk in Milwaukee 25 years ago – volunteered O’Brien to serve on the ACS’s Wisconsin leadership committee. Since then, he’s held various board roles with the ACS and recently assumed his role on the national ACS CAN board.

Based in Washington, D.C., ACS CAN relies on volunteers across the country to educate elected officials on cancer-fighting policies, which in turn shape local, state and federal legislation.

Working with ACS has allowed O’Brien to advocate for improved patient care, timely detection and increased investment in research, he said.

“I found my voice,” he said. “I’m an advocate. I’m a lawyer. I can talk to lawmakers without being intimidated because I’ve dealt with individuals of various personalities over the years and difficult cases and have dealt with high-leverage situations in my job. I realized I could be an advocate. I could be their voice.”

O’Brien’s ACS board work is backed by support from Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren, which has raised more than a half-million dollars and supported the organization in various ways over the past 25 years.

“We’ve had women in this office who, for many years, would sew and knit chemo caps for individuals who were undergoing treatments; that’s a great legacy we’ve had here,” he said. “It’s not just an issue of money, although that’s very important to the cause … (The firm’s leaders) have always been squarely behind ACS’s mission and I think that’s something that reflects extraordinarily well on this community.”

O’Brien said he’s continually inspired by the work of other volunteers, cancer survivors and their families.

“Volunteers do so many selfless things; it’s very inspiring,” he said. “It’s very easy to take up the mantle and do what you can when you see examples like this on an everyday basis.”

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Lauren Anderson
Lauren Anderson covers health care, nonprofits, education and insurance for BizTimes. Lauren previously reported on education for the Waukesha Freeman. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied journalism, history and African studies. In her free time, Lauren enjoys spending time with family and friends and seeing live music wherever she can.