Congratulations to Maimah Karmo, a fierce and fearless breast cancer survivor and advocate. Tigerlily Foundation, the organization which Maimah founded educates, advocates for, empowers and provides hands on support to younger women – before, during and after breast cancer. Ms. Karmo is the recipient of L’oreal Paris Woman of Worth Honor. “Ten deserving women from accross the country were recently selected to receivethe 2009 Women of Worth Award. L’Oréal Paris will make a donation of $5,000 in each honoree’s name to their charitable organization. Read all about Maimah’s L’oreal Paris accomplishment at L’oreal Paris Women of Worth Website.
Also enjoy our republished indepth exclusive interview with the fearless woman from our October 2008 issue below:
Maimah Karmo was born in Liberia, West Africa. She survived three coup d’etats in her country and while her family lost everything in Liberia’s war, she had a relentless and winning attitude that she could face and overcome any and every obstacle, that is until breast cancer came knocking. In (this) interview, Maimah gets very real and vulnerable with (us) as she takes us through her journey prior, during and after her diagnosis with breast cancer.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: [Maimah & I are chatting about the relaxing Sunday we are having. She is telling me the importance of having down-time and how she stayed in her PJ’s till 1pm. It is about 3pm East Coast Time and 12:00pm California time when we begin the interview].
LADYBRILLEmag.com: [The interview begins] Maimah, your experience with breast cancer is such an interesting story and I thought it was really important we feature you, especially with your African heritage, so African women can be tuned into the need for self breast examinations. Share with us what life was like before [breast cancer]?
Maimah: Well like most women, I worked a lot. I was young, progressive. I am from Liberia. We [her family & her] came here in 1989 for vacation when the last Coup d’etat happened in Liberia. Our “vacation” turned into a permanent situation because of the war and our homes getting destroyed, which is the story of many people in Africa. But, my parents always taught me that those things didn’t define me or who I was. Being a good person inside and having the right spirit and attitude is what would define my life and I could create a home anywhere. So, we lost everything and went from living a very comfortable life to living in a one bedroom apartment. [She begins counting the number of persons who lived in the apartment] me, my mother, father, my four brothers, my grandmother and two cousins. Can you imagine that?
LADYBRILLEmag.com: [ I respond] Hmmm . . .
Maimah: But, it never fazed me. It was like, “Okay. Next step. Things happen. Get over it and move forward.” I just turned 16 [when I] got here [USA]. My father always taught me . . . he said “the cream always rise to the top and you are gonna be the cream and you are gonna always rise.” I know you are young and you are supposed to go to college. [She transitions to a different train of thought] We lived off my college tuition and we used all the money. So, I got like two jobs immediately and at some point, three jobs at 16 and 17 years. When I applied for jobs, I would say I was 18. Now that I look back now, I say [she is laughing] “Who was that little girl?!”
LADYBRILLEmag.com: [I laugh with her] I know.
Maimah: I was also helping take care of my mother because she was ill?
LADYBRILLEmag.com: [in a curious tone] What was the cause of her illness?
Maimah: [a bit contemplative] She just had a lot of health problems and she came here before the war to get treatment. She just had you know [pauses] we couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her but she wasn’t working for some time. I use to work, help my brothers do their homework, [go] to work, come home. I took care of her. After a while, she got better and she worked and my dad worked and so I was always like progressive. I gotta get things done. Eventually, I got a secretarial work, then I went to community college, then I worked 2-3 jobs, got into George mason University and I worked for a while. I paid for my college, cash no loans.
Maimah: I helped my parents while I was going to school. I took the bus to school and took it home. Many days I used to sit in the cold at the bus stop and freeze when the bus was late or chase the bus down. One time, I missed the bus and was trying to get to this temporary job that I had so I hitched a ride in a milk truck. [laughs]
LADYBRILLEmag.com: [I laugh with her and exclaim] Milk truck!
Maimah:[She gives a little squeal while laughing] I mean I just like was relentless. I was trying to finish my degree so I could be successful.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: [I laugh but my curiosity has me serious again] What made you so driven? I was in New York for Fashion Week and I got a chance to visit my friend who is also a fashion model, Hawa. She is taking care of twelve people! I don’t know how people like that do it?! It sounds like your case. Where did you get that drive and how did you do it? Most of us are barely trying to take care of ourselves.
Maimah: [She is pensive] I feel like I have a responsibility. I feel like when you are put on this earth, that is a blessing, an honor. God put you here for a purpose so you can be the best you can be. I feel like if you are into yourself, you can’t help anyone else. I also feel [we] are responsible for others. Even you who I don’t know, I feel a connection to you. You are like my sister. You are my soul sister, not soul as in Black but as in God, and so our responsibility is to enhance others through our spirit and when we have the gift.
You know how the church says we are all part of the body, one body. I, you, your sister, friends, my daughter we are all part of this one body, even strangers [are] to me. Our job is to be the best and enhance other parts of the body. So, I feel responsibility [towards] other people and I have always felt that way since I was a child. I don’t feel responsibility as in, “Oh my God it is a burden.” [in a happy tone she says] I love doing that. I love when I can help pull somebody up and see them smile, where that have a light in their eyes, they are inspired, successful. That gives me tremendous joy.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: [in a reflective tone] It sounds like you have spent so much time, even in your youth, being an adult, and doing all these work. But, I really don’t hear anything through all these about you taking care of yourself. You are working three jobs, doing this, doing that, taking care of everybody etc. How were you taking care of yourself prior to breast cancer and how has that changed? [I laugh and say] It is sort of a multi-layer question.
Maimah:[In a serious tone] The first part, you are right. I was not taking care of myself. I was taking care of myself by eating right but that is not the only thing you need to do. Being a woman, in the African community as a mother, you are the pillar of the family. You are in control, you are in charge. You cook, clean, take care of the house, guests, you have to be attractive, people come to you for advice, you take care of five or ten people, the grandmother, the dad’s family. etc. So, we tend to neglect ourselves quite often and that manifest itself in health problems.
I don’t remember being a child. I always was responsible. You are right. [laughs] You are good at what you do for noticing that. We African women put ourselves under a lot of stress and we neglect to take time to rest and we feel we are being selfish to think of ourselves. Since I have gotten breast cancer and survived, I do more things for myself than I used to [b]ecause I realize by honoring myself is the only way I can stay alive and be healthy. My mother, I compliment her for giving me life through birth and saving my life. She taught me at a young age to do my own breast examinations. She was a nurse. I didn’t want to do it. I was very embarassed but I did it and later on in life, I felt a lump on my breast at 32years old. I actually had found a lump the previous year. I went to the doctor, she examined me, did a mammogram and the radiologist said it appeared to be a cyst. Cysts are not hard per se. I [asked] the doctor if it is a cyst why is it not aspirating?
LADYBRILLEmag.com: [Curious tone] What do you mean by aspiration for some of us who might not understand?
Maimah: Oh! [ She responds] Aspiration is if you put a needle into the breast, if it is a cyst, the water will come out and dissipate. If it is a tumor, it will be harder and the water will not come out.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Let me take you back to when you felt the lump. What was your reaction?
Maimah: When I first felt the lump, I felt this is not new but it was hard. My heart was thumping and everything got darker and I thought, “Oh my God.”I called my mother and she was like, “go get it checked right away.” My doctor kept insisting saying you are too young, you don’t have any history. But, my intuition. I thought and felt that something was wrong with me but I was under a lot of stress at the time. I was a single mom, working, going to school, engaged at the time.
It was so much stress and I thought okay maybe it was stress but all that contributes to your health. [M]y hair was falling out and I was having night sweats. So I knew something was wrong with me because I was always tired all the time. On the weekends my daughter and I would go out and do stuff but more and more on weekends, I will sleep all day and not get off the couch and that was not me. So, when she said to come back in six months, I waited and I went back and it felt bigger and it was growing. So, now I told her let’s do a biopsy now. I really feel we should.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: [in an irritated and inquisitive tone] Why didn’t she think of doing a biopsy back then?
Maimah:She said “no.” She said, “I am not going to do that?”
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Was her refusal related to the kind of health plan you had? Was it covered? HMO? I find that when it comes to health care for minorities, black and Africans, it is like we are treated like we are dumb and don’t know what we are talking about.
Maimah:Yes. She did talk down to me and she said I was being vain. She kind of just patronized me. She said you are young, a new mom and a pretty girl. Why are you worried about this lump? Just forget about it. Leave it alone. I told her, no I can’t. It worries me. I think for one thing being a black woman, second, being young and third I am under 40. The health care industry preaches women under 40 don’t get breast cancer. So I think for all those reasons, she ignored me. [In an excited tone explaining things] See doctors forget that each patient is unique and they have a prescription mentality. They see you, assess your statistics and then they diagnose you forgetting that you an individual. So, she thought young, no history, eats well, had a child two years ago, you know whatever, “come back in six months.” I can’t tell you how many friends I have who are now metastatic [Metastatic means breast cancer is spread out of your breast, bones, liver, spine, brain, your other organs] because of this “come back in six months” BS.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: [ I am stunned] Wow!Going back to your doctor. You come back in six months, you feel a hard lump on your breast and you say I don’t feel comfortable this is getting harder. What happens next?
Maimah: She kept insisting on re-aspiration. I kept saying “no”. I need to have a biopsy. She says go tell the nurse to schedule you. I went to the nurse and she scheduled me for an aspiration/biopsy. The doctor came in there and I said, “I know you have an aspiration but I want a biopsy and I am not going to leave without one.” She says, “why are you doing this? You don’t need this.” She tried to talk me out of it.
LADYBRILLEmag.com:[In an angry and suprised tone] Are you kidding me?
Maimah: Yeah. She said, “why do you want to do this? I told you you don’t need to have this. It is a waste of time.” I [insisted] she did it. The next day she called me on February 28th, 2006 at 4:45pm. She called me at work, then she called my cell and then she called my work phone again. As soon as I saw her number I knew I had breast cancer. I just knew because they never call you that quickly. I was in a conference call and I didn’t answer the phone and I knew that will be the last normal thing I do before my life changed. I mean I have always been very in control of my life since I was a young girl. I had a vision, I had a five year plan. I was a go-getter. I had a plan A and plan B and this was not even in my plan C. I finished my conference called. She called my cell phone and then she called my work and I picked up and I knew and she said, “Maimah you are right, you have breast cancer.” I just dropped the phone. I looked at my daughter’s pictures because I love her and she is all over my wall and I said, “ I am so sorry I did this to you.”
Maimah: Even though I was an educated woman, I thought breast cancer [meant] death. I did not even know who an oncologist was. [In the past] I would go to breast cancer events, enjoy it, go home and go on. I was part of the problem. I put the phone down. I looked [across] at my boss’s office. She was in a meeting but she had known about my tests. I have one of those offices where people could see me and I [them]. I just looked at her and stood there and I could not talk and I walked away. She [dismissed] everyone and told them to get out of the office and then she came to me. I told her the doctor called. She said, “Oh my God!”
My co-workers wanted to drive me home and I said, “No I can drive myself.” I called my fiancé at the time and told him I have cancer and he said, “Well how do you know for sure?” I told him, “I have cancer! I have cancer. They told me. I know.” I then went to my mother’s job and told her. I called my dad. It was very surreal. I just went home and sat on my couch. My cousins came over and they asked me if I was fine. I told them I was fine but told them I was tired to make them leave because I just wanted to be alone. I just sat there the whole night I could not go to sleep.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: [empathizing and in an empathetic tone] Your mind was somewhere else.
Maimah:[Agreeing] I was in a different world. There was so much going on in my mind I could not even process.
LADYBRILLEmag.com:hmmmm . . .
Maimah: I was still like what? I don’t understand. I looked in the mirror. I looked healthy, ate my vegetables, exercised, drank a lot of water and took my vitamins. I thought to myself, “I [do] my regular checkups, how did this happen? Is this real?” So, [the] next morning, I called the doctor and I said, “Hi it’s Maimah Karmo. You told me yesterday that I had breast cancer. Is that true?” She said, “yeah sorry [with hesitation in her voice], you do.” It’s so interesting because for someone who has been in control my whole life, for the first time, I was out of control.
Maimah: I was unable to do anything. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t answer the phone. I just sat home [on my couch] and was numb. My friends were calling and calling. I would look at the phone and just wonder, “What do they want?” Nothing made sense to me anymore. It’s like someone telling you the sky is purple [she laughs].
LADYBRILLEmag.com: uh-huh [In a soft tone] Did you get a second opinion?
Maimah:I got two because when the doctor [her previous doctor who had to be pushed to even do a biopsy, six months after Maimah discovred a lump] told me, I immediately dropped her. [I] could have died if I listened to her. [I] found one other doctor and he said, “just take the breast off.” He had not even seen my x-rays and he wanted me to take my breast off. <
Maimah: I told one of my co-workers about it [who] had [had] breast cancer. She told me about her doctor and how compassionate she was. Now, I am so fearless about breast cancer but at the time, I was in the fetal position sitting like curled up, rocking and shaking.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: [empathetic tone] hmmm . . .
Maimah:[Maimah chose her co-worker’s doctor and visits her new doctor’s office] When she came in, I remember feeling so terrified! I’m telling you Uduak it was like you don’t know anything but you just feel and know there is nothing you can do.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: hmmm . . .
Maimah: The doctor closed her office and explained what the diagnosis was about, what it meant, what we could do and options for my chemotherapy. My oncologist would explain more details. My mind just went blank so it was good to have someone with me to be there to hear all that.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Who did you have with you?
Maimah:My co-worker who had it before. She drove and I can’t remember anything on our way there and back. So, it is really important when women go through these to have someone to support them. I was scared and it was so much information.
MAIMAH FINDS THE RIGHT TREATMENT
LADYBRILLEmag.com: How did you determine the best treatment for you?
Maimah:Well, 1) you want to look at your family history. 2) You want to look at your diagnosis which is the most important thing because 80% of women that get breast cancer have no history.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Interesting. . .
Maimah:So, you want to look at your diagnosis. What stage of cancer are you? Stage I? II?
LADYBRILLEmag.com:What stage where you at the time?
Maimah:Stage 2 just before it had gotten out of hand. Luckily I had pushed. If I had not pushed it would have been a whole other situation.
Maimah:They went in and did surgery and I knew that they would tell me whether it was in my lymph nodes. Basically, if it is in your lymph nodes, it means it has got out of the breast tissue which means you might want to explore a masectomy and you will have more aggressive chemotherapy.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Interetsing . . .
Maimah: When I came out of surgery, my doctor said,“your nodes are clear.” I started crying.
Maimah:I cried because I didn’t have to take my breast off and I had this surge of relief. [Maimah’s daughter comes in and interrupts the interview. She kisses her daughter and says, “I love you. Go play I’ll be done soon.” [She continues] Cancer feeds off estrogen. But there are some cancers that are random and do not feed off estrogen and it makes it tough because: 1) you don’t know the cause and 2) there is no treatment for it. Also, even if they say you are free of cancer, you are never quite free.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Is that when they say [ it is] in remission?
Maimah:Yes. “In remission” means there is no evidence of the disease. It doesn’t mean it is gone.
LADYBRILLEmag.com:Just so our readers understand. You have breast cancer, you go through chemotherapy and you are cancer free. But, that means it is remission and could possibly come back?
Maimah: Yes. It could.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: hmmmm . . . .How do you stop it from coming back if it is in remission or can you ever?
Maimah:[in a bit of a perplexed tone] I think getting early treatment is key. Some women it never comes back. The surgery is local but chemotherapy is systemic and affects the whole system. Radiation treats the whole system. So you have two localized treatment and one systemic treatment. If your estrogen receptor is positive, then you have to take a pill for a year or more to attack [the disease] so it does not come back.
MAIMAH MAKES SOME MAJOR CHANGES
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What was the defining moment that made you think you could beat breast cancer?
Maimah:I was 105 pounds, bald, I was exhausted, my grandmother had died while I was going through this, I was under tremendous stress, I had this child and I had lost who I was. My treatment ended and they said, “Come see us in three months.” I felt very very alone and almost raped by the cancer because it comes, messes you up and then it says “there you go. Figure your life now.” Couple of months later, it came to me and I thought, “are you going to let cancer define who you are or are you going to define breast cancer?” I just had this thought. I then thought about who I was. I realized I didn’t have to be defined by it [She begins tearing up].
LADYBRILLEmag.com: [I also am tearing up at this point]
Maimah:[In a stronger tone] Oh! I always get emotional.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Yeah. . .
Maimah:[Still emotional and tearing up] I thought about the woman who could not take care of herself, her child, feed herself after the chemo. So, I thought I have to do something. [Voice getting stronger and passionate] If each one of us take one thing we are passionate about and use it to make a difference, we can eradicate a lot of crap going on in the world.
LADYBRILLEmag.com:[More composed] That is true.
Maimah:I had to begin to accept responsibility for breast cancer and my life.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What do you mean by that?
Maimah: I feel like I create my life. I am responsible for decisions I make in my life.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: [I chime in] the choices you make?
Maimah:Yes. Some of the choices were [good] and some were bad. I made a choice to eat processed foods, eat meat, eat foods that has hormones injected into them. I made a choice of living a lifestyle that was go, go, go!
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Okay I have to interrupt you real quick. “Eat meat?” Most of the world eats meat. What do you mean by that?
Maimah:Well because when you go through all these [chemotherapy] you go through complimentary treatment if you so choose. I learn[t] a lot about food and the role food plays in our cellular molecular makeup.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: hmmmm . . .
Maimah: For example, in Africa, we eat meat, chicken and for the most part, you kill them you bring them home and eat it. Foods are typically more organic. In industrialized nations like the USA, the foods they give animals to eat are full of pesticides. The way the animals are [fed and taken care of] is to make them bigger and fatter.
Maimah: They kill, package, put preservatives on them and put them on the shelves and now we have to eat them. Also, for me, the way the animals die cruel deaths and we are eating all that energy. Plus, we are the only ones that drink another animal’s milk. The milk has lots of pesticides, hormones and all kinds of stuff that are by products of the way they are harvested, grown and packaged. So, when you think about it, on so many levels, that is not good for your body.
LADYBRILLEmag.com:It is so hard though. Because even the most conscientious [persons] who eat vegetables [have pesticides] to contend with on those vegetables.
Maimah: I am not saying I don’t eat meat. But I eat a lot, lot less of it. I think it is more expensive to go through cancer. So, I just made an investment. I go to Whole Foods and I look at the labels to see where [the foods] [are] grown. If I see a banana that is [emphasizes with voice] HUGE . . . do you know a banana in Africa is not that huge?
LADYBRILLEmag.com: [I burst out laughing because it is so true!]
Maimah: Joins and we both start laughing] [She gets serious again] You kind of know what you are eating. You just get it because it is there or you don’t want to spend the money. Taking responsibility, for me, was that I was going to change my lifestyle. I also wanted to teach women how to take care of themselves and how they can do their own self breast exams. I think with prevention, we can reduce our mortality rates, eat right and manage our stress level. You know when you go through treatment, the first thing they tell you is “manage your stress level and change your diet.” That is incredible to me!
Maimah:Exercising, for example, is not just to be thin but also to be healthy. I thought it was important to share these information with others; and to tell them how to be their own best breast advocate. I am launching a mother-daughter event that will encourage women [including] African women/mothers to encourage their daughters to do self-breast examinations. I am also writing a book about using your challenge as a gift
MAIMAH MAKES AND KEEPS HER PROMISE TO GOD
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Tell us about your foundation www.tigerlilyfoundation.org.
Maimah: It is an empowerment tool for breast cancer and health in general and really helps women take care of themselves. I also have my company http://www.maimahkarmo.com/ which I see as a way to talk to people and help change their lives. You know, when God calls us, he sometimes has to stop us in our tracks because we have our own plans. He talks to us all the time. We just ignore him. For me, breast cancer saved my life. God kept knocking and knocking and asking for my attention and I refused. But, when I was going through these, I said, “God, if I survive this thing, I will use my life in service for you.” Once I got through it, I kept my promise. Tiger Lily was that promise and Maimah Karmo.com is me enhancing that promise to teach women how to overcome their self doubts.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: I thank you so much. It has been a phenomenal and [inspiring] time listening to you share your compelling, compelling story. Women, especially African women, need to be empowered. We need role models, leadership, sisterhood and love among ourselves and it takes a special kind of person to do it. So, I am so glad God has blessed you and healed you and you have shared your story with the world to help women prevent breast cancer.
Maimah:Thank you. I love what you are doing too. You are so strong and I can see it with [Ladybrille] and I can feel your energy and I think it is phenomenal.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: You are too kind. Thank you.
~Interview by Uduak Oduok
Founded in 2007, Ladybrille® Magazine is a California based pioneer digital publication demystifying the image of Africans in the west through contemporary African fashion and celebrating the brilliant woman in business and leadership, with an emphasis on the African woman in the diaspora. Our coverage includes stories on capital, access to markets, expertise, hiring and retention, sales, marketing, and promotions.