One of the most important things we can do for our health is to share our family health history. Knowing our family’s health history can help us understand our risk for certain diseases and take steps to prevent them or catch them early. This is especially important when it comes to breast cancer. A lot of people know me as the founder of the Tigerlily Foundation and a relentless champion for health, but this wasn’t always the case. I stepped onto this path after facing a health scare that changed the course of my life.
My Mother’s Teachings
My mother, a nurse, instilled in me the importance of breast self-examinations at a young age, and that knowledge ultimately saved my life. Since then, I have dedicated my life to advocating for breast cancer awareness and early detection. I was only 32 years old when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. At that age, most women don’t even think about cancer, let alone know what to do if they find a lump. But because of my mother’s teachings, I knew my body, and while doing a monthly breast self-exam, I found the lump early, and I advocated for myself to get screened, despite doctors saying I was too young. My diagnosis experience ignited a passion within me for advocacy and education. I founded the Tigerlily Foundation, while in treatment, to empower young women to be their own best health advocates, as well as to educate them about breast cancer and to change systems that don’t work in our best interest. I didn’t always feel as fearless as I may have seemed, but I’ve always told myself that I had to use my privilege for power. The privilege is that I am alive, and therefore I have a responsibility to use that power to ensure that other women are equipped with knowledge and resources to help make sure that they too have better health outcomes.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I knew that this was information I had to pass down to my own daughter, Noelle. She was only 3—too early for certain conversations, but not too young for me to start modeling what self-advocacy, commitment to and compassion for community looked like. While we still don’t know what causes breast cancer, I did know that certain factors increased risk, so I began to eat cleaner, exercise more, get rest, integrate yoga, detoxing, and other complementary lifestyle behaviors. I talked to her about how she felt—emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physically. When she got older, I talked with her about the importance of self-examinations, just as my mother had done with me. Noelle created her own living legacy piece with Tigerlily Foundation through the Pajama Glam program. This program provides education and resources to young girls about breast health and ways they can implement healthy lifestyle tips in their everyday life to help them feel beautiful and empowered, especially during a difficult time. The Pajama Glam is our most fun event—focused on generational conversations with girls, moms, and families—all wrapped in fun, sparkle, and bling. At each event, families come in pajamas, do Zumba, yoga, fitness, dancing, and more, all while filling out their “Passport to Health” throughout the day.
Genetic Testing and Counseling Offerings from Tigerlily
“Genetic Testing: What You Need to Know” is a free guide that provides information on genetic testing for breast cancer and other cancers. It covers topics such as who should consider genetic testing, what the process involves, and what the results mean. You can download the guide from the Tigerlily Foundation website.
“BRCA Gene Mutations: What You Need to Know” is another free guide that focuses specifically on BRCA gene mutations, which are associated with an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. The guide provides information on genetic testing for BRCA mutations, as well as options for risk reduction and management. You can download the guide from the Tigerlily Foundation website.
Tigerlily also has feature articles and videos that address this topic, such as “Black Women and Genetic Counseling: How to Become Your Best Advocate” on the Tigerlily web page and the Breathe Tv series season 2, episode 6, titled “Hereditary Breast Cancer and Breaking the Cycle” on the Tigerlily YouTube page.
The Tigerlily Foundation website also has a “Resource Library” that includes a variety of information on genetic testing and cancer risk, as well as other topics related to breast cancer and women’s health. You can search the library by keyword or browse by topic to find resources that are relevant to your needs.
The Power of One
My story has come full circle. From my mother’s teachings to my own diagnosis and advocacy work, to passing that knowledge down to my daughter and seeing her create her own legacy. She’s sharing her story at events, educating her peers, and now also leads Tigerlily’s Hope Box program, through which she sends boxes of hope to newly diagnosed patients. Together, she and I have built a grassroots organization with global reach, starting when she was 3 and I was 32 years old. This is evidence of the power of one and the impact of using that power to impact millions of lives.
Tigerlily Foundation is a national breast cancer organization whose mission is to educate, empower, support, and advocate for young women ages 15 to 45 before, during, and after breast cancer. Tigerlily Foundation is dedicated to ending disparities of age, stage, and color. To learn more, visit tigerlilyfoundation.org.
Your Health History
If you don’t know your family history, this is a call to start having those important and powerful conversations. Talking with your family should be as easy as doing it while you’re on a drive, out having a meal, or doing chores around the house. So, I encourage you to approach the conversation with empathy and understanding—and it doesn’t have to be so serious. Let your family know that you care about their health and that you want to make sure that everyone has the information they need to live their best lives possible.
If you do have a family history of cancer, it is important to talk with your doctor about your risk and any screening or prevention measures you should take. You may also want to talk with a genetic counselor, who can help you understand your risk based on your family history and any genetic testing you may have had.
I know firsthand how important it is for families to create generational awareness about health history and being proactive. We need to make sure that we are talking about health with our families, and that we are getting the screening and prevention measures we need. And we need to know that health is wealth.
Talking about cancer can be scary, but it is also lifesaving. By sharing our family health history and talking openly about cancer, we can empower ourselves and our loved ones to take control of our health and catch cancer early. It is up to each of us to create our own legacy of awareness and education, so that future generations can live healthy, cancer-free lives.
About the Author
Maimah Karmo is the founder of Tigerlily Foundation, a breast cancer survivor, and an Advisory Board member of Conquer.
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Education, Advocacy, and Empowerment Bloom Eternal at Tigerlily Foundation: An interview with Maimah Karmo about her life’s work of empowering young women with breast cancer