Life is full of challenges, and for many of us, this usually means an excuse to indulge in the art of sell-pity. And there is no bigger challenge than one that threatens to negatively alter the direction of our lives, or worse yet, end it. However, when Maimah Karmo was diagnosed with breast cancer at the young age of 32, she was not to be defeated. Instead, she turned to God for help and direction, and she has been living her life with meaning and purpose ever since – including, best of all, touching the lives of others. As we celebrate breast cancer awareness month this October, we found no one more fitting than this fearless one from Liberia, West Africa, to grace the cover of the October issue.
Imagine you wake up one day and feel a lump in your breast. It bothers you, but your doctor says it’s nothing to worry about; it’s just a cyst. You have no family history of breast cancer, so this must be accurate. Then imagine that even so, you still can’t sleep for days because this cyst, that is nothing to worry about, is keeping you up all night. You schedule an appointment for a second opinion only to be told that you have stage two breast cancer. You have a lovely daughter who depends on you; she is only three years old. There are other people who love you. And, worst of all, the man who asked you to marry him now sees this as the perfect opportunity to break up with you. What would you do?
This was exactly Maimah Karmo’s life on February 26, 2006, and she describes it as the day her “whole world flipped.” She even remembers the exact time. It was 4:45 p.m., when life as she knew it came to a brief standstill before rapidly heading in a totally different direction. She had two choices. She could either curl up in a corner and cry herself to sleep day and night, while doing nothing and feeling sorry for herself, or she could fight and turn this negative change into something positive. She chose the second option. And thank God she did, because today several young girls and women are grateful she chose to fight.
Maimah tells how it all happened, and what followed after, best:
“six years ago, something happened to me that ripped my life apart. I was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer. I had a beautiful 3-year old daughter and my entire life in front of me – or so I thought. With those words, “you have breast cancer”, everything I knew ceased to exist anymore. The world as I knew it was a different reality. I had to learn fast. I had to adapt. I had to figure it all out – I had everything to lose – including my life. While undergoing my second round of chemotherapy, one night, I made a promise to God to give him my life in service. Next morning, my entire life was different, and Tigerlily Foundation was born. Although I was still sick, I felt stronger than I ever had; bolder than I’d ever felt and most of all, I felt a fearlessness about life I’d never known.”
Although Maimah lacked the financial resources to start a foundation, so resolute was her resolve to make a difference that, for two years, she dipped into her own pockets to fund the Tigerlily Foundation. Today, the foundation is well-known as a breast cancer foundation that not only exists to educate, but also provides personal assistance and services to breast cancer patients before, during and after treatment. Knowing first-hand what the journey entails, Maimah wanted her focus to be people-centered.
With services such as the buddy bags program, providing meals and financial assistance to patients and their families during cancer treatment, Tigerlily’s existence has become about more than just being another breast cancer foundation focused on research and awareness. It exists to love and care for the women while they are still here and alive, struggling to make meaning of their diagnosis and all that goes along with it. The foundation also offers services such as the Chemobuddy Program which provides volunteers to drive patients to and from treatments, or to just support them with calls, visits and cards. That’s the part I love the most about Tigerlily Foundation – the aspect of the human touch.
Tigerlily Foundation was founded in November 2006, after Maimah’s second round of treatment, just eleven months after her diagnosis, and it has been thriving ever since. In May 2008, the foundation held its first fundraiser and has since reached out to over 7000 young girls and women, educating them about breast cancer. In 2009, Maimah was invited to speak at the Capitol Hill where she introduced the Breast Cancer Education and Awareness Requires Learning Young (EARLY) Act. She was also honored by L”Oreal Paris at its 4th Annual Women of Worth Awards. In 2010, she was appointed to the Federal Advisory Committee on Breast Cancer in Young Women. The committee, which was established by the Affordable Care Act, will work to develop initiatives to increase knowledge of breast health and breast cancer, particularly among women under the age of 40 and those at higher risks for developing the disease. In 2011, Maimah was honored at the Running Start’s 5th Annual Women to Watch Awards. She has also been featured in prominent publications and on TV networks across the United States.
Maimah Karmo has lived more in the years after her diagnosis with stage-two breast cancer and the treatments that followed than she ever lived in the years before. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that she is now living her life in service to others, bringing smiles to long drawn, tearful faces and planting hope where there once was none but fear and doubt. She has impacted lives!
Sometimes, it takes drastic measures to wake us up from our slumber. And many times, it is needed. For Maimah it woke her up to her potential, and today she is grateful to have lived through the pain and awareness, and she “would not give back the experience.” Her soon to be released memoir, Fearless: Awakening to My Life’s Purpose through Breast Cancer (book launch is on October 24 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC), chronicles her journey from Liberia, as a refugee, to the United States, her diagnosis of breast cancer, watching her life fall apart, and how she learned that the biggest challenges can be gifts.
But while breast cancer awakened in Maimah her life’s purpose, it also awakened in her a deeper realization:
“I realized that my cancer wasn’t just about my body and the awful cells that threatened to destroy it. Cancer starts to permeate our lives long before we even know it exists. It can affect our minds at youth, it permeates unhealthy relationships, it keeps us in jobs that make us miserable, it keeps us in unhealthy battles with food, weight and body image. Life cancer can take away your peace and infiltrates your life, so that you are no longer the confident, strong, fearless individual that was born into the world. So many people are afraid of cancer – as I was and to an extent still am at times; but the thing that I fear most is not living and merely existing. That is a sure and slow death. So, the morning my life changed, I made a vow to live as loudly as possible. I would jump into the things that made me afraid, I would risk everything to feel, to live and to love. Most of all, I would be fully present in life and give of myself so that others may have the incredible joy I feel every day of my life.”
What powerful words from a fearless woman who did not allow life’s challenges and fears to keep her from living up to her full potential of touching lives and making a difference in her community. She is truly an Afrikan Goddess!
To learn more about this fearless and courageous woman, visit her website at http://www.maimahkarmo.com. To learn more about Tigerlily Foundation, visit http://www.tigerlilyfoundation.org. And to learn more about her upcoming book launch, to RSVP and to purchase a copy of her memoir Fearless, visit http://maimahkarmo.com/book.html.