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Story Spotlight - Maimah Karmo: She survived civil war, lightning, now this

Maimah Karmo fled to America from Liberia when she was only 15. Her father put her, alone and scared, on a flight to New York, hoping she would have a better future than the one her war-torn homeland would give her.

Karmo’s time in America was tough at first. She says she spent five years sleeping on a couch, crammed into a two-bedroom apartment with 8 other family members. She eventually got on her feet and had a little girl.

At 31, something wasn’t right. During a monthly self-exam, she felt a lump in her breast.

“I've escaped three wars, I've been held at gunpoint, I've been hit by lightning when I was 12 years old. So I've survived many things,” Karmo says. “When I came to the U.S., I thought OK, there's no guns, there’s no war, I’m free from all this struggle and turmoil. But when I got diagnosed, I thought, oh my God, the war is inside of me. And I can’t run from the war, I can’t get on a plane and escape.”

On Feb. 28, 2006, at 32 years old, Karmo was diagnosed with Stage 2 triple-negative breast cancer. All of a sudden, she was a single mom fighting breast cancer.

“How do I tell a 3-year-old I have cancer?” Karmo remembers worrying. “My biggest dilemma at that time became not so much what would happen to me, because I would endure any pain. The only pain I couldn’t endure is leaving her. And the pain she would feel, maybe, after I was not there anymore.”

Karmo went through a period of intense depression. She had undergone surgery and was undergoing her second round of chemotherapy.

Karmo had been feeling sorry for herself for quite some time until something occurred to her: “If my life up to now hasn’t really meant something, maybe the cancer was happening for a reason. Maybe life isn’t about the time you live but what you do with that time. Maybe there was something I was born to do. Maybe there's a reason why. Maybe stop asking God why and ask myself why not me?"

When Karmo started asking herself "why not me," she says she started to transform in a way she never expected.

She began to wonder how many other women were out there like her, battling breast cancer at a young age? Whom do they turn to for help? Who holds their hands? Who helps them?

That’s where the Tigerlily Foundation’s journey began. Karmo promised God that if she got through cancer, she would set out to create an organization to educate, empower, advocate for and support young women affected by breast cancer.

Karmo beat her breast cancer and went on to grow the Tigerlily Foundation from a concept to a national organization, which has more than 300 volunteers nationwide, providing breast health, wellness and transformational programs to young women in more than 43 states.

“I look back now, and even through the cancer, everything I suffered through was for more than me,” Karmo says as she chokes up. “Everything I went through was because other people needed to know that you can get through anything. I can tell a woman now who is sick, ‘You can do this.’ It's not about the cancer, it's about how you choose to transform your life, how you choose to be in control of your spirit.”

Gannett, which owns USA TODAY, has supported the Tigerlily Foundation with grants from the Gannett Foundation.


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