The advertising guru who wants to cure cancer

Lord Saatchi says his Irish-born wife’s death from cancer has opened his eyes


Every morning that he is there Lord (Maurice) Saatchi has his breakfast beside his Irish wife’s tomb at their lakeside home in West Sussex.

Two years ago Josephine Hart, best known as the writer of the novel Damage, died from a form of cancer similar to ovarian cancer known as peritoneal cancer in 2011. She was just 69.

She and Saatchi were married for 27 years. It was a second marriage for both of them, he the co-founder, along with his brother Charles, of the biggest advertising agency in the world, now known as M&C Saatchi; she the television producer turned successful novelist.

Not for him the well-meaning platitudes of “moving on” and “coming to terms with her death”.

He says it matter-of-factly as if it was the most natural thing. Her death was an “incomparable nightmare” and he does not intend to get over it.

He credits his wife with teaching him all he knows about literature, describing her as “undoubtedly” a genius, adding that it is not just his opinion but that of the poet Ted Hughes.

Dominant force
Hart was born and raised in Mullingar. Saatchi describes Ireland as the “dominant force” in his wife’s life for better or worse.

For better was the education she received from the nuns in Carrickmacross.

“She attributed to them all that she learned about literature and poetry and its importance in making human lives better,” he says.

At her funeral service in Westminster Abbey, he quoted some remarks she made just before she died.

“Without reading, life would have been less comprehensible, less bearable and infinitely less enjoyable. It has never let me down.”

She also associated Ireland with tragedy following the deaths of three of her siblings when she was young.

Her brother Charles died when she was six. When she was a teenager, her sister Sheila died of brain damage as a result of meningitis and shortly afterwards her brother Owen was killed in a chemical explosion when she was 17. She left Ireland for good four years later.

“It is without a doubt the formative influence in her life,” says Saatchi. “Her memories of Ireland were extremely powerful and extremely sad.”

Just before Christmas in 2009, his late wife went to the doctor with a stomach ache and was shortly afterwards diagnosed with inoperable, incurable cancer.

Saatchi found out the hardest way possible that being a man of immense wealth (The Sunday Times estimates his joint fortune with his brother at €157 million) and influence at the heart of British society (he is a former chairman of the Conservative Party) counts for nothing when faced with the arbitrary cruelty of cancer.

He describes the treatment that his wife received as “medieval, degrading and ineffective”. As he put it graphically, “the woman turns into a sparrow. The woman is left for dead. Soon after, the woman dies.”

Lack of progress
He has resolved, as a layperson, to do something about it. He says treatments for gynaecological cancers have not progressed “by one iota” in 40 years.

“The problems with all these cancer deaths is that they are wasted lives – not in the human sense, but in the scientific sense that our knowledge of these cancers has not advanced by one centimetre by their deaths,” he explains.

Last month he brought forward his Medical Innovations Bill to the House of Lords. His central contention is that doctors are precluded from carrying out innovative treatments for cancer because any deviation from standard procedure could lead to a case for medical negligence.

Standard procedure involves chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery and the new targeted treatments, but nothing else.

When asked what innovative treatments he had in mind, he responded succinctly: “There are none because the law does not allow it.”

Just as cancers have a universal impact, so do the treatments. “If I can change the law in England, ” he says, “I can change it everywhere else.”

As he points out in the footnote to his Bill, grief “is not a good basis of law, but nor is it a disqualification from rational thought” and besides he has used his considerable resources to co-opt doctors, lawyers and parliamentary draftsman into its drafting. “The point is not grief, the point is the law.”

The law, as it stands, is meant to protect patients from quackery and from reckless experimentation. Without innovation there cannot be progression in cancer treatment, but there can be no innovation because there is no deviation from standard procedure and so it goes on.

To guard against quackery, Saatchi has included a test which involves approval by a hospital’s multidisciplinary team (MCT) – a more severe bar, he says, which involves the “two doctors test” in the UK which is required for an abortion to be carried out or for somebody to be sectioned in a mental health institute.

Saatchi prefaces the Bill with the question: “How can an act of parliament cure cancer?”

As an advertising slogan goes it has the first impression of at least being arresting. Saatchi says he doesn’t expect his Bill to cure cancer, but to facilitate those who might – an Einstein or a Newton in cancer care.

“This Bill will encourage the man or woman who will cure cancer.

Like the discovery of penicillin and insulin, these innovations are going to take place because a man or woman will have an idea of how to cure cancer. “That person will be encouraged by this Bill.”

Lack of innovation
He believes there is no absence of brain power or money in cancer research, as evidenced by breakthroughs in the treatment of common cancer such as childhood leukaemia or breast cancer, but the whole field is stifled by a lack of innovation.

Evidence-based medicine is regarded as optimal care, but cancer is the least evidence-based disease of all, he says, and the current law, which is designed to protect patients, has the opposite effect.

Saatchi says his wife’s legacy is secure in the literature she has left behind and in the way she has encouraged the public reading of poetry. Any legacy from a Bill which might encourage better cancer treatments would be a bonus.

“The motive for the Bill is no more original than what you often hear on news programmes from the relatives of the deceased.

“ If one mother, child, father, brother, sister can be saved from a disease, that would be a blessing for all of us,” he says.