Why I Believe In St. Agatha, Patron Saint Of Breast Cancer Patients
Photography by Carmen Cheung
I am not a religious person, but I believe in Saint Agatha.
I learned of her shortly after I was diagnosed with breast cancer from a dear friend’s father, an older gentleman who hails from southern Italy. Saint Agatha is the Patron Saint of Breast Cancer patients and her story, as he shared it, goes something like this:
Agatha of Sicily was born in the third century and from her very early years, gave herself (and her virginity) wholly to a life of prayer and service to God. Quintianus, Governor of Sicily, was enamoured and thought he could get her to betray her beliefs. In an attempt to force her into marriage, he had Agatha arrested and imprisoned.
She wouldn’t break.
Enraged by her refusal to submit, the Governor ordered Agatha to be tortured: she was hooked to an iron rack, whipped, and burned with torches.
Agatha endured it all with a calm strength and, it’s said, head held high.
So, as a final desperate and depraved act, Quintianus commanded that her breasts be cut off. It’s why you often see Agatha depicted in religious art with her breasts on a plate. She remains a powerful intercessor when people suffer from fires, sexual assault and is a symbol of protection for women who are in danger.
Agatha’s backstory is horrific, but even for its barbarism, hardly unfamiliar. Like a biblical version of “nevertheless, she persisted,” it’s just another example of a powerful man attempting to prevent and punish a woman for speaking her mind.
In 2017, I felt that silencing, viscerally.
Cancer treatment has a way of silencing you. It’s a routine that requires you to be pliant and agreeable, no matter how much it hurts. Submitting to have a generous portion of your breast removed and the rest of it burned to a black crisp with rounds of radiation are just par for the course.
Add to it a divorce, and the wounding letters threatening to take away my home, my bank account and my medical insurance unless I agreed to my ex’s terms. He wasn’t my torturer and I definitely was no saint, but ya, you could say it rang familiar.
So it was that I came to wear a gold coin necklace bearing Saint Agatha’s image. I custom designed it with the loveliest Charlotte Piché, the creative force behind Deux Lions Jewelry. She immediately understood the symbolism behind the piece and, I believe, put her whole goldsmith mastery into handcrafting it. That Agatha is also the patron saint of jewellers I think only adds to the synergy.
Besides being intimidatingly gorgeous and cool, Charlotte also has the biggest heart: She’s offered to add Saint Agatha to Deux Lions Jewelry’s permanent e-commerce collection — with a portion of the proceeds going to Rethink Breast Cancer.
The Saint Agatha pendant isn’t a Catholic thing, a religious thing, or even really a spiritual thing. It’s a symbol of every woman who ever felt their message minimized, and, I hope, recognition for all those who raised their voices and displayed the courage to fight. Breast cancer or not, it’s a celebration of women persisting, surviving and loving themselves beyond their circumstances.
Theologian and author Nadia Bolz–Weber was quoted in Glennon Doyle Melton’s book, Love Warrior with this:
“When you’ve worked through it all behind the scenes and you’ve gotten a chance to mine your pain for gold — then you can offer it to the world as a gift. When your pain is fresh, we share it with our little crew of people, not with Facebook. But when we’re ready to present what we’ve learned to the world as a gift, when the wounds are sufficiently scarred over and we’ve figured out how our personal pain and experience speaks to universal pain and experience — when we can say, this is about me but, not really. Really, this is about us — then we are ready to offer it to the world.”
I hope you come to love Agatha as much as I do. – Aya McMillan