The day she found a lump in her breast, Maimah Karmo says, “I felt the world turn a couple of shades darker. I thought, Are you kidding me? ” She was only 31. After fleeing war-torn Liberia at age 15 with just a suitcase, Maimah had just reached solid ground—she had a good job, some money, a house. But now this.
She went to one doctor, then others. “They said I was too young to have breast cancer,” Maimah says. “I knew they were wrong. I knew my body didn’t feel right.”
When a biopsy was finally done, the news was grim: Maimah did have breast cancer—and it was aggressive. She went through surgery, chemotherapy, radiation. “I watched everything I had built over the past 16 years fall apart,” she says. “I lost faith in God. I lost faith in everything.”
For three months, she became more and more depressed, tired, and hopeless. “One day I fell to my knees in the shower. I was bald, skinny, exhausted from the treatment. I just cried and cried and cried,” Maimah says. “That night, I said to God: Why is this happening? Please show yourself to me.”
The next morning she felt a new sense of purpose—to make people realize that women under age 40 can get breast cancer, and to help young women going through that ordeal. She began telling her story, reaching out to other cancer patients, and raising money to help them. In 2007, her grassroots efforts grew into the Tigerlily Foundation, named after a flower that loses its petals then blooms again. The nonprofit, which now boasts 300 volunteers, educates young women around the world about breast health, supports them through treatment and recovery, and empowers them to be their own best advocates.
Learning programs include peer education, live Twitter chats moderated by the Tigerlily Foundation, webinars where doctors and survivors can connect, and Pink Power Alerts—weekly texts that provide information on healthy living. The foundation also works with health care providers to help them incorporate information about young women’s breast health into their practices.
Support efforts include Hope Bags for young women diagnosed with breast cancer and financial assistance to patients and their families. Additionally, empowerment programs promote fitness and help young survivors navigate life after breast cancer.
Maimah is a tireless advocate, taking on various speaking engagements and lobbying on Capitol Hill for women’s health initiatives. “I love supporting these women,” she says. “The experience of breast cancer taught me to be a fearless warrior. It gave me the gift of my ‘soul purpose.’ I now appreciate every moment of life.”