A Heart Wide Open

Written by SCN Blog Contributor, Maimah Karmo

As any one of us sits in the middle of a challenge, the first thing that comes to mind is never a big “Thank you” to the Universe, usually, it’s more like “What the heck?”, “Why me?”, or the deep desire to just get through it already. I now understand why life is set up in a way in which we don’t know what the future will bring. We need to exercise faith, hope, vulnerability, love and allow our experiences to hone us for the better; no matter what happens, choosing to pick ourselves up, dust off, and say, “I will not allow this experience to break me, but it will make me better and stronger today.”

As I write this, I’m six months away from being 10 years breast cancer free. It’s also been 27 years since I escaped my native country of Liberia as a refugee and came to the United States at 15 years old with just one suitcase, 30 years since being hit by lightning and having an out of body experience, 30 years since I was held at gunpoint by soldiers, and 23 years since I escaped from the first war. All my life, I’ve had obstacles in the way, but one of the reasons that I’ve persevered is because I did not see them as such, but as adventures. Was I terrified when I came to the United States alone? Of course, I was. At that time, there was no Internet, Facebook or email.

When the war happened in 1989, there was no way to stay in touch with friends except for long distance calls. Finding myself in a brand new world was daunting, but I was thankful that I still had my life, which meant that I had options, a choice — a future. Years later, I thought I had it all together — the house, the car, the relationship, a beautiful daughter and an awesome job. I thought I was finally free from the guns and war, then a breast cancer diagnosis brought it all crashing down on me again. Now, it felt like the war was inside of me. While undergoing treatment for breast cancer, including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, I realized that life does come with challenges; but they do offer us opportunities for growth, for healing and the opportunity to become more than we can comprehend. The person that I became during that time was stronger, bolder, more confident, more raw, more vulnerable, more loving and more of what I was asking others to be. In that place, I found my purpose — serving others through my life experiences by way of the organization I created while in treatment, Tigerlily Foundation.

It hit me — no matter what came my way, those experiences were not only happening to propel me further and to mold me into who I was meant to become, but they were meant to be shared, to help others along their journeys as well. I have met incredible people, who are also seeking, growing, and desiring to use their experiences to help others.

This is why now, challenges excite me. The opportunity that being alive affords us is incredible. No matter what we face, we have the power to choose what we create afterwards; and we have the power to choose how we live. When I’m facing an experience that is daunting, I do a mental exercise where I imagine holding a coin — on one side is excitement and on the other side is fear. I make a mental choice to flip it to the side that allows me to break open, to grow, to love, to learn, to serve and to become more of who I was born to be.

Here are tips for you going forward:

  • A challenge can be a gift. It can be the catalyst that breaks you open to becoming more than you thought you could be.
  • Walking into the thing that you fear the most could rid you of a limiting beliefs that hold you back.
  • If your entire life has fallen apart, while you’re there, create your “what would I do if I couldn’t fail list? There is nowhere to go but up – make it happen.
  • When I was in treatment and thought I might die, I realized what a gift it was to know that life was finite and to have gone through the challenges, fear and pain. Before cancer, there were days when I didn’t appreciate the sun, rain, a body with no pain, or just that I was above ground. Be grateful for where you are and grow from there.
  • Challenges open your heart. They teach you how to give. Everyone is facing some challenge. Throughout your day, remember that each person, like you, wants love, and understanding- you’ll be more compassionate, kinder and more vulnerable. In exchange, you’ll receive amazing gifts – of healing, of support, of love.

Until next time, embrace the change and live with your heart wide open. It’s the only way.

Love, Maimah

Maimah Karmo is the Founder/CEO of the Tigerlily Foundation (Tigerlily) and a ten-year survivor of breast cancer.  On February 28, 2006, at 4:45 p.m., Maimah was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. She had no family history and was 32-years old. While undergoing her second round of chemotherapy, she made a promise to God that if she survived, she would create an organization to educate, empower, advocate for and support young women affected by breast cancer. After her second treatment, Tigerlily Foundation was born. Beginning in chemotherapy, Maimah left her full-time, high salaried job with a global organization, to follow her soul purpose.

Her daughter, Noelle, was just 3 years old. Maimah has grown Tigerlily into a national organization, with hundreds of volunteers nationwide, providing breast health, wellness and transformational programs to young women; and eventually helping to pass two critical pieces of legislation in Congress, to ensure young women had access to breast screening, resources and programs. Having come to the United States alone, as a refugee – at 15 from Liberia, West Africa, Maimah’s goal is to transform the lives of women nationally and globally, facing health disparities.

In 2009, Maimah was awarded a L’Oreal Paris’ Woman of Worth award. In 2010, she received the Congressional Black Caucus Leadership in Advocacy Award, and the Running Start “Women to Watch Award”. She worked with Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz on the Breast Cancer Education and Awareness Requires Learning Young (EARLY) Act, and after its passage, in October 2011, Maimah was appointed to the Federal Advisory Committee on Breast Cancer in Young Women, a committee established by the Affordable Care Act, on which she works to develop initiatives to increase knowledge of breast health and breast cancer, for women under the age of 45 and those at heightened risk for developing the disease.

She is a sought after speaker and media personality, regularly called upon to speak on Capitol Hill and other venues, as a health, leadership, advocacy and empowerment expert. Maimah is an Ambassador for National Women’s Health Week and Shea Moisture. In 2015, Maimah advocated with Members of Congress to help ensure that young women had access to breast screening. Tigerlily Foundation flew young women to Washington, D.C. to meet with 74 members of Congress. The visit resulted in doubling the House and Senate support for the Protecting Access to Lifesaving Screening (PALS) legislation. The bill was signed into law within a month, protecting the lives and rights of millions of women.

Maimah has appeared in USA Today, U.S. News and World Report, Black Enterprise, Oprah Magazine, Essence Magazine, Ladies Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Good Housekeeping, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, Redbook, Women and Cancer, Cure Magazine, Traditional Home Magazine and more. She has also been featured on Fox 5, ABC 7, CBS, the Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America and more. She is a sought after speaker by the media and for Congressional policy events; she is a philanthropist, who supports various charitable causes. Most dear to her heart is her 13-year old daughter, Noelle, now an advocate in her own right, hosting a national event, called Pajama Glam Party, where she engages girls to become advocates and to have healthy lifestyles.

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