Maimah Karmo is a remarkable woman. Eight years ago, her life was torn apart by a diagnosis of aggressive breast cancer. She had a beautiful three-year old daughter and her entire life in front of her — or so she thought. With the words, “You have breast cancer” everything Maimah knew ceased to exist as the same. The world held a different reality.
Maimah says, “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 I made a promise to God one night to give him my life in service. The next morning my entire life was different and Tigerlily Foundation was born. Although I was still sick, I felt stronger and bolder than I ever had. Most of all, I felt a fearlessness about life I’d never known.”
Since starting Tigerlily, Maimah has dedicated her life to helping young women around the world. She is a motivational speaker and has appeared in various media outlets, including O, The Oprah Magazine, Essence, Ladies Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Good Housekeeping, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, Redbook Women and Cancer, Cure Magazine and more. She has also been featured on Fox 5, ABC 7, CBS, the Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America and numerous national radio stations. In 2009, Maimah was awarded a L’Oreal Paris’ Women of Worth award, among others. Maimah is an active member of other advocacy organizations. In May 2011, she was named one of Running Start’s “Women to Watch”.
Most dear to Maimah’s heart is being the mother of a beautiful 11-year-old girl, whom she adores.
Q: You’ve been identified by someone as being incredible. What do people see in you that is incredible?
MK: I’m the worst person to ask that question, as I’m my own worst publicist. I will say that I love very deeply and give love freely. I’m open and honest; I’m vulnerable and strong. I think what people see in me is a reflection of themselves.
Q: You said that breast cancer forced you to be authentic. What does living an authentic life mean to you now? What do you hope to teach your daughter about how to live her life? What does she teach you?
MK: My daughter reflects me back to myself. As we get older, we tend to look at ourselves in terms of expectations and we are judgmental of ourselves. But my daughter looks at me with so much honesty. My friends and I were working on a vision board together, I spent hours creating it, and I said, “Noelle, come see what I did.” And she said, “I don’t get it, you already are those things that you want to be.” She reminds me to be less judgmental of myself, accept myself where I am, and to more authentic, because it is okay to be me.
Being authentic means being who you are, where you are, when you’re there. I’ve been blessed by authentic girlfriends. We are able to be our girl selves and our woman selves together – vulnerable and strong, goofy and serious, all with no judgment. It’s amazing to have friends who celebrate all of the things that you are. You’re not afraid to show up because you have people who support you in your growth.
I didn’t have a lot of girlfriends growing up, I always wanted a sister. But now I have friends and their unconditional love and support allows me to be who I am. One great thing about authentic friends is that they see things in you that you don’t see in yourself. They see your greatness and potential and it helps you to peel off layers. When you peel off all the layers everyone is pure love, everyone wants to be accepted — where they are, when they’re there, wherever they are.
Q: The Tigerlily Foundation is built to inspire, educate, and advocate for women with breast cancer. Like a tiger lily, women are always changing — blossoming or dormant, growing and evolving. How has The Tigerlily Foundation evolved for you? How has your life changed in unimagined ways?
MK: It’s been an amazing and incredible journey. I came to this country as a refugee when I was fifteen years old. I took a fifteen hour flight alone, built up my life, and then was diagnosed with breast cancer. My life fell apart. I’ve always been searching for who I am and what I’m supposed to be and, just when I felt like my life was together again, I got diagnosed and it all fell apart.
Oftentimes we want things and when we get them we find that we are trapped by maintaining those things. It’s like finally getting what you want, then you find you’re not happy. I had come to the United States with nothing, so for most of my life, I had worked to create stability and acquire things. When I did finally get “there”, I found that there was still something missing. So after being diagnosed I started to find ways to serve people. Breast cancer gave me a different perspective. I needed to be someone who asked questions, who stood up for others. My diagnosis was crazy, unexpected, and life changing. I couldn’t continue with my career because I felt a burning desire to work with women under 40 who were diagnosed with breast cancer.
I began the Tigerlily Foundation as a blog and offered one program where I sent bags to women who were diagnosed and undergoing treatment. I began getting calls from hospitals and organizations, and from there started speaking and adding programs, which grew into a 501c(3). Everything grew really fast. I wasn’t expecting it to grow at the rate that it did. Sometimes, I feel as if I became an accidental leader!
I saw myself as someone who would make a difference, but I never set out to be leading. In my heart of hearts, I am a homebody, quite shy and prefer to remain behind the scenes. One of the reason that Tiger Lily has grown so fast is because I’m able to be humble – I am a servant leader at the core. When I found myself on Oprah less than two years after beginning Tigerlily Foundation, it was amazing. She asked me if I had written a book – and it was painful to say “no”. However, I finally did write one. It is called “Fearless: Awakening to My Life’s Purpose Through Breast Cancer.”
Sometimes I look back because the last eight years have been a roller coaster, but it’s been fun. I’ve survived three wars, been held at gunpoint, struck by lightning, and had breast cancer and survived, so now, I just “live”. I don’t hold back. I express how I feel — I’m open and honest. There’s no way to pigeonhole me. I don’t fit into any mold.
Since being diagnosed with breast cancer, I consider this is my afterlife. I see everything with a fresh set of eyes and I jump into life. I made a decision to not tone things down and to just to show up as I am. When I live this way, it encourages others to live openly and boldly as well.
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 infiltrate 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.
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.
Q: You write that “The fearless female’s journey is not without fear it’s about leaping into the fear.” Can you tell me about a time when you leapt into fear?
MK: I would say that as Tigerlily Foundation grew, it scared me. People were seeing me as an expert or authority about breast cancer. I was so afraid of being the person that people looked as someone in such a position of authority. I had set out to help some women, and didn’t expect the outcome to be so big – and that scared me. I didn’t know that being “just me” would come with responsibility. I didn’t realize that God chose me for this and I needed to make a decision to show up and engage. Every time I show up on a stage or when people are looking at me, I feel a responsibility to fully show up, so I breathe and I show up! I get asked to speak in places that I didn’t expect, as I often am now on Capitol Hill – speaking as a breast cancer advocate. What all of this has taught me is to step into the fear, whether it’s of public speaking, or maybe saying the wrong thing in front of really smart people, or of not making the impact that I’d like to make. I focus on the present, and enjoy the moment. Being able to make a difference in the lives of others is such a humbling experience.
Besides my work, falling in love for the first time, after treatment was scary as well. When I got diagnosed, my relationship with my daughter’s father fell apart and it was so painful that when I needed someone the most they left. But it was a gift, because I learned to be so strong and I might not have found my purpose if it hadn’t happened that way. I’m so thankful for the way my life has unfolded. However, the pain of a broken heart made me keep people at arms length. I was deathly afraid of having a romantic relationship. But I met somebody who was so under the radar and before I knew it I was head over heels. It was a gift, because once I realized I was scared, I just stayed there with my fear. I meditated and worked with a reiki person. It was really powerful to choose to stay and to learn and I’ve really grown in that sense. I’m at a place where I’m ready, willing, and able to be with someone.
Q: In an interview (http://thegrio.com/2012/02/13/2012-maimah-karmo/#46347104) you said that “The best experience for me is to live, and to give life to other people.” How do you give life to others?
MK: You give life by living. We all do. It is the circle of life. The women that we help at Tigerlily Foundation come to the foundation because they might be scared after a breast cancer diagnosis; they might be dying or feel like they are dying. The Tiger Lily flower, in particular, the stargazer lily, our favorite, symbolizes transformation. It’s a perennial, in the fall and winter the leaves fall off, and in the spring and summer they grow. Just like the women. We work with women to help them survive and thrive and to wake up to who they are meant to be.
I often speak to women about empowerment and who they want to be in their lives. The goal is to inspire them to live their life and not to wait. I started Tigerlily when I was in treatment. I started something out of nothing and it’s grown to be something. If you are “alive” and awake, you can give life by inspiring others to survive and thrive and to be a light to others. I’ve work so hard to be present to others and to share light with others. The more we show up, the more we can help others to do so as well.
How can you be the change you wish to see in the world? You can’t just wait for someone else to do it. We have to cause something to happen!
Q: What advice would you give to an earlier version of yourself?
MK: I would say, “You’re good.”
I’m actually painfully shy, which people don’t know about me. Growing up I always wanted to be in the corner, never in the spotlight. I used to feel like a loner, but I was OK being by myself. I fit in with all kinds of groups, but didn’t belong to any of them. My father always said to me, “You don’t have to follow the crowd. He said, “do what feels right for you and people will follow you.” He taught me to learn to be who I was and to walk confidently.
I used to worry a lot about my future, but now I realize that it’s all good; it’s OK. I just tell myself: It’s OK. You’ve already won. You’re already there. If you worry about the past and the future, you’ll never enjoy the gift of the present.
Q: What question did I miss? What else should I know about you?
MK: I’d love for readers to pick up my book: Fearless. I’d love for them to donate or join us. I also recently launched a digital magazine called Bliss Magazine. It’s all about being happy and pursuing your life’s purpose. I also gave a TED Talk last year. Thanks so much for your support!
If you’d like to learn more about Maimah, you can see some of her interviews here: