Maimah Karmo is living again. That’s something the 35-year-old Liberian native didn’t think she’d be doing much of following her discovery over three years ago that she had breast cancer. Young, vibrant and strikingly beautiful, Karmo appeared on the outside to be a perfect picture of health.
A trip to the doctor’s office in February, 2006, threw that assumption right out of the window when she was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. Karmo didn’t feel like fighting. She wanted to give up. She was hanging on to life by a mere thread.
Karmo lay in her bed racked with anguish. Upon learning that she had breast cancer, Karmo said the news unnerved her like no other time in her life. She began to think her life was over. She wondered aloud what would happen to her beautiful daughter.
Her longtime boyfriend, whom she planned to marry, decided to walk out on her because he didn’t want anything to do with her or her ailment. Karmo’s once rock-solid faith in God collapsed into disillusion and anger. For a long time, fear and uncertainty gripped her mind and spirit. Depression and anxiety began to set up shop.
Almost immediately, Karmo came to probably the same conclusion that a projected 182, 460 women who will likely come down with breast cancer this year have come to; her life was over. After lung cancer, breast cancer is the second leading cause of death of women. According to the American Cancer Society, nearly 1.3 women across the globe figure to be diagnosed with some form of breast cancer. Over 400,000 of these women will eventually succumb to this disease.
Karmo said she was taken aback by her diagnosis. She thought she had done everything right to avoid coming down with a disease like breast cancer. She exercised daily, sometimes running up to six miles before hitting the weight room. She ate all the right foods and drank enough water to fill up a bathtub. She didn’t worry or stress much about things that were out of her control.
Her life was good. However, Karmo’s dream world soon shattered into shards of denial, doubt and disbelief.
“I thought I was a firm believer in God. I thought my faith was strong,” Karmo said. “I’ve had a life full of challenges, but I’ve always tried look at life as the glass half-full. So whatever happened, I knew I would overcome because I believe I am a child of God. I was faithful. I went to church. But nothing can shake your faith like getting that kind of diagnosis and when I got diagnosed everything fell apart. I was young and healthy. I exercised and ate healthy. I never thought I would get something like breast cancer.”
Karmo certainly didn’t think the man she was supposed to marry would ever leave her side, especially in her darkest hour. The father of her young daughter didn’t just leave her. He degraded Karmo, emphatically telling her he had no intentions of being with a woman who was about to die.
It would get worse. The man Karmo had planned to spend to spend the rest of her life with, put a phone call through to her a couple of days after her first breast cancer surgery and broke off the relationship.
“My fiancé told me he didn’t want to deal with that,” Karmo said. “It was hard for me because of the person I am. I give a lot. I share a lot. And I do a lot for people. It just shook my faith in people. It really rocked me. I lost all faith. I got that. And then I got a whole new set of news and it was like everything was really falling apart. My faith was non-existent. I figured that I was going to die. The person I loved just left me because I’m sick. It almost broke me. I just said, ‘What kind of God would let this happen to anybody?’”
In Karmo’s situation, He is apparently a God of redemption. As she lay in her bed one evening, weak from exhaustive rounds of chemotherapy, Karmo spent the evening praying and praying about her situation. She had gotten to the point where she began to feel like a victim. It was a feeling of helplessness. Karmo was at the brink of not caring about what happened before she was diagnosed Stage 2 breast cancer and really not giving a hoot about the future.
The rounds of chemotherapy treatment took its toll-emotionally and physically. Karmo watched her beautiful, flowing black hair drop off her scalp until she was completely bald. She lost considerable weight. Karmo didn’t truly realize how sick she was until she saw that head full of hair she had fall off in large masses.
“I didn’t except the fact I was going to lose my hair because I have pretty long hair. I love my hair. It was hard. Once I had the first chemo (treatment), it didn’t fall out. But in the second round it started to fall out. It would just start peeling. It was falling all over the place. Hair was coming out in chunks.”
Karmo fell into victim mode once she understood she would have to shave off all of her locks, which was a painful thing to do for her.
“It was awful. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do because I never admit defeat,” Karmo said. “I don’t feel or think defeat or having anything like that over my spirit. Me shaving my head was like admitting defeat to the cancer. Once you get your head shaved you look like a duck in the face.
“But you know what I realized? It is not about the hair or the breasts or the body; it’s about your spirit and what you bring to the world and what you give out every day. The people that you meet-what you share with them, what you leave behind to the stranger on the bus or someone in the car next to you. You put your spirit in people when you walk by them. That’s what life is about. “
At that point, life was now nothing more than a tantalizing illusion for Karmo. She didn’t know what to do. Finally, she went back to what she knew to do-she prayed. While she engaged herself in meditation, Karmo found just enough energy to pull herself up out of bed and into the shower. As the water drizzled across her weak body, her inner strength grew.
Karmo began to feel her spirit being renewed with a sense of purpose. Her determination to succeed became an avenue of fierce resolve. She began to pull herself out of the mental funk she had collapsed into. Her mission in life became clear that evening. Karmo want more women to be educated about breast cancer. She wants the women who have already been diagnosed with the disease to believe that life isn’t over for them.
“I prayed and prayed,” Karmo said. “I woke up and I felt like a whole another person. I took a cold shower and I felt like God had come in and cleansed me. I was like, ‘Oh, My God! He does exist. I felt like a new person. I was still sick. My head still hurt. But inside I felt like this whole new determination. I didn’t expect this person to come out.’”
That new person inside of her came up with the concept of Tigerlily Foundation to help breast cancer survivors. The nonprofit organization, in which Karmo is the founder, assists women in getting more education about breast cancer and providing a full throttle support system for survivors of the disease.
She appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show last fall to share her experience as a breast cancer survivor. She shares her experience with women around the country, speaking about the issue and becoming a fearless crusader for empowerment and education on breast cancer. Karmo’s determination to combat breast cancer has even grabbed congress’ ears.
Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida), who has had to fight her own battle with breast cancer, will be the keynote speaker at the Tigerlily Foundation’s annual gala on Oct. 22.
Karmo now sees her own challenge in dealing with breast cancer as a tool to help others. Through her foundation and the assistance of other groups, she was able to send over a mammogram machine to Liberia earlier this year. Karmo said this is what she is called to do.
“What I learned is that a challenge can be a gift,” Karmo said. “That was the most challenging time of my life, but it was also an amazing gift. When you go through challenging times, you look for the positive-when you at how that is going to mold you-that mold into character. I asked myself, ’Am I going to let this thing break me? Or am I going to make it to where God wants me to be, so that whatever happens I’d make my mark and leave my daughter a legacy? Breast cancer has changed my life tremendously. You can use that experience to help other people.’”