Interview with Maimah Karmo, Author of "Fearless: Awakening to My Life’s Purpose Through Breast Cancer"
Posted Oct 23 2012 9:40am
Maimah Karmo is a breast-cancer survivor and the founder of the , an organization that educates, empowers and advocates for young women affected by breast cancer. The idea was born after her second chemotherapy treatment. When she appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to tell her story, Oprah’s advice was emphatic: Maimah must write a book. So Maimah did. Fearless: Awakening to My Life’s Purpose Through Breast Cancer (Brown Books, October 2012) is about her transformation, and how she learned that a challenge can be a gift. Fearless is a stunning account of Maimah’s upbringing in Liberia -- which was uprooted when she was 15 years old, and her family was forced to flee to the U.S. -- to living the American Dream, watching it all fall apart with a breast-cancer diagnosis, and ultimately, bouncing back. Today, Maimah has made her mark in the world of breast cancer, and her work has been celebrated everywhere from The Oprah Winfrey Show to Redbook Magazine to Good Morning America. Dedicated to changing the breast cancer landscape, Maimah's goal is to create a legacy of a world free of breast cancer.
What inspired you to write Fearless?
When you face your mortality in any way, it puts you at a crossroads -- you either become a victim of the thing or a victor of it.
You also have the opportunity, if you survive, to start over, re-create yourself and your life, because you realize that you’re the artist and, at your desire, you can draw anything you want on that canvas. My breast cancer diagnosis devastated me, but even more so, I know that many other things had to fall apart at once for me to be pushed to the point where I begged God to show me my purpose, because I had nowhere to look but up. I had fallen so far so fast.
After my surgery, my fiancé walked away, unable to cope with my diagnosis. As my hair fell out and I lost my eyebrows and eyelashes, I felt parts of myself falling away. As I saw my career come to a standstill, I had to move in with my mother and give up my home. As I saw the way some of my friends now looked at me, and watched my body become weak and frail, I learned that so much of what I had prioritized in life was unimportant. I had, first of all, put other people, my career and material things first, and me and my passion last. I realized that so much of my life was a façade. Most of all, I realized that if I died, I would not have given a fraction of what I wanted to the world, and no one would really know me and the big, crazy love that I’d kept hidden so deeply inside, lest I be judged by others in some way for being too open with my heart.
Losing “everything” that wasn’t important showed me that I had everything to lose by not showing up. I began to live my life by giving all that I had away -- my time, my love, my passion -- to help others, through my organization, Tigerlily Foundation. And as I gave, God gave me more in return than I ever imagined. He gave me time with my daughter, blessed me with the ability to service others through my “work,” which isn’t really work to me, gave me joy, faith -- quadrupled all that I lost -- and, most of all, he gave me passion and restored me to the person I had been seeking all along. I also learned that life is not about wanting to take for oneself and garnering things, but about the moments we can commune with, affect and empower others.
You founded the Tigerlily Foundation. Tell us about that.
In 2006, I was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer. I was 32 years old and had a 3-year-old daughter. While undergoing my second round of chemotherapy, I would ask why this was happening to me; I was so afraid of the future. I learned that approximately 11,000 young women get diagnosed and approximately 1,100 of those women die because they are misdiagnosed. I thought of how many other young women were going through what I was experiencing. Then, I stopped asking why and began thinking how, and then what could I do to make a difference, instead of looking to someone else to make a change. I prayed about it, and the next day, the vision for Tigerlily Foundation was born, with a mission to educate, advocate for, empower, and provide hands-on support to young women -- before, during and after breast cancer. What started as a promise and a dream is now a nationwide organization reaching thousands. Tigerlily Foundation provides education and empowerment to young women and their families. We educate healthcare practitioners, provide peer support to newly diagnosed young women, send out breast cancer buddy bags and meals, pay their bills, and provide support to young women living with Stage 4 breast cancer.
I founded the organization while working a full-time job, and as a single mother. I did it because if it were not for the grace of God and a mother who taught me to do my breast exams at thirteen, I wouldn’t be here. I’m humbled to do this work because I believe that when one is blessed with life, in some way, we must be of service to others. There is really no excuse to not give back or find the time to help others. There is so much we each can do to impact someone else’s life. I founded Tigerlily because I promised God that I would create something that would make a difference in the landscape of young women and breast cancer, and I promised my daughter that I would live -- and I meant not just physically, but be truly alive, thereby giving her a legacy that would never die -- hopefully an example of the importance of creating the life you want, pursuing your dreams, embracing life, loving the moment and walking along a path because you believe in something deeply, even if you can’t clearly see the way ahead.
I do this work because young women are needlessly losing their lives to a disease that many of them are not even aware of. Breast cancer floored me, but I made a decision to pick myself up and be even better than before -- and I want other young women who are diagnosed to know that they have somewhere to turn for support, love, empowerment and services. I want them to know that they can survive and thrive. I want young women who have been diagnosed to know that they have a right to life and that they need to exercise their personal power and become their own best advocates. I will do whatever it takes to ensure that every young woman is aware of the issue of young women and breast cancer, and I’ve dedicated my life to ensure that this happens. It is important to be living examples to our children. When my daughter was six, she woke me up one morning and asked me what she could do to “help the women too.” She asked me if she could have a fundraiser. The week she started first grade, she began planning, along with several of her friends, to have her first fundraiser. In December of this year, she is holding a 100 person event at a local hotel. At six years old, she already knew she could make a difference. Imagine what the world would be like if little children grew up all wanting their lives to matter and wanting to give more than to get. That would be a wonderful thing. I hope to give this gift to others through my work.
What’s the one thing you’d want someone recently diagnosed with breast cancer to know immediately?
That being diagnosed with breast cancer is not a death sentence; and that you are not alone. Those two things are the most fearful feelings. There are so many women, more than 250,000 diagnosed annually, who survive and thrive after breast cancer. That means that you have thousands of other women who have walked the path before you and who can support, empower and inspire you. What shifted me was the knowledge that I was in charge, not breast cancer or anything else. Breast cancer sucks, but the reality of life is that we all have to go sometime -- from breast cancer or something else. What breast cancer did for me was put my life in perspective. It gave me a wake-up call and helped me to see that I was, and we are all, here temporarily. I needed to own my life and find my purpose, so that I would live the rest of my life with meaning. With this in mind, I focused my energy and fears into making my life count. That is what we all want at the end of the day -- to make a difference, love a lot, and live like there is no tomorrow. What was interesting is that helping others healed me in so many ways. It taught me compassion and gave me more wonderful friends than I could have imagined.
You’ve connected with some amazing, inspirational women along your journey. What have you learned from them?
I have learned, as one of them said, “to eat life with a big spoon.” Life is so short, and we are so powerful. The women who make a difference don’t live scared -- they show up and say what’s on their minds. They are passionate, purposeful, have faith and an amazing personal strength that comes from a sense of knowing oneself. They live with their heads held high and are never victims of this or that, but tend to see life with the glass half-full, learning from mistakes, living with grace and knowing that their actions reverberate on a larger scale.
Finally, where can we find your book?
You can purchase it on Amazon, or if you would like an autographed copy, visit my website at www.maimahkarmo.com .