A young mother explains how breast cancer turned her life around.
(Photo: Maimah Karmo)
As a reporter, I hear a lot of bleak statistics. More often than not, it seems African-Americans end up on the wrong side of the data.
The breast cancer statistics are particularly alarming. African-American women under 40 are more likely to get breast cancer than white women. And, according to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for black women is 77 percent compared to 90 percent for white women.
While there is reason to despair over the countless lives needlessly lost to breast cancer, I have met one Maryland woman who decided to use her illness as a lifeline to effect positive change.
Maima Karmo was just 32 years old when she received the nightmarish news six years ago. For some time, she had felt an unusual lump, but was advised to ignore a symptom that should cause any woman alarm. “Six months prior to my diagnosis, my doctor told me there was no problem with my breast and it was all in my head,” she told me. “But I insisted that they do a biopsy. Thank God I did.”
Karmo followed her instincts, and after a year of chemotherapy, she is alive to tell her story. But her treatment was enough to make even the strongest person crumble. She was constantly sick, her hair fell out, and because she couldn’t work, the bills were piling up. “I didn’t have the energy to take care of my 3-year-old daughter. And to make matters worse, my fiancé decided to leave me,” she said. “For me, that was more difficult than recovering from cancer.”
Many people would feel defeated by these circumstances, but Karmo faced them head-on, and then turned her recovery into a rallying call. She was so frustrated by the lack of assistance for young women in her shoes that she decided to start her own non-profit called the Tigerlily Foundation. The organization offers hands-on, ground-level support for young cancer patients before, during and after breast cancer.
“I wanted to find a way to fill the void I felt when I was undergoing treatment,” said Karmo. “And by focusing on others, I ended up nurturing myself. So in a way, I now say that cancer saved my life.”
So while it’s easy to see the breast cancer stats as yet another burden that disproportionately falls on the back of Black America, I can only imagine what would happen if more breast cancer patients would do as Karmo did: turning pain into purpose.
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