After Jonny Imerman fought testicular cancer in his 20s, not once but twice, he wanted to see the world—or, at least, a part of the world that didn't include chemo rooms and surgical suites.
Yet one of the first places he went was the cancer ward of a Detroit-area hospital. "I didn't know exactly what I was going to do," recalls Imerman, who earned a bachelor's in psychology from LSA in 1998, “but I knew I wanted to find someone I could help. I talked to the nurses. They said, 'Awesome. Go talk to Mike, he has no friends or family visiting him.’ I knew exactly what he was going through. We spoke the same language. Did you get this rash? Where's your (chemo) port? Two hours later, you're hugging it out.”
When you think of Jonny saying this, imagine someone with the excitement of a five year old at a birthday party. Awesome. Hug it out. That's Imerman: endlessly positive and enthusiastic, and tireless in his efforts to help people with cancer. His next rapid-fire string of thoughts relays what happened after he met with several patients in Chicago.
"I thought, this is scalable. We can help Hank, who's 80, facing a big esophageal surgery in Seattle, or a single mom in Portland. It was such a gradual thing. We just willed it to happen. My mom came up with the name, Imerman Angels. We made T-shirts and a website."
The T-shirts and website grew into a major network with more than 4,000 "mentor angels"—that is, cancer survivors who sign up to support others with cancer. The patients "need to know others have been through what they have, and have survived it. I was pretty clear that this was the missing piece in cancer care that needed to be filled, and, yeah, now we have thousands of people who have been helped."
The mentor angels are trained over the phone about what to do, and what not to do. They are encouraged to be friendly and supportive to current cancer patients, but never to dispense medical advice. Each angel is paired with a support-seeker, and the two communicate in whatever way works best for them. Some meet in person, but many of the pairs live nowhere near each other. They email or Skype, send instant messages, even send letters via snail mail. The first group of mentor angels, when the organization formed in 2003, included about 200 people from the Detroit area. Today, survivors are from Chile, Kenya, India, Latvia. Imerman Angels also matches caregivers of survivors with those caring for current patients.
The feedback has been powerful. "Reaching out to Imerman Angels when I was diagnosed was one of the best decisions I have made in my life. Absolutely no one, except someone who has gone through exactly what I’ve gone through and survived, could have helped me fortify my resolve to live in the powerful way my angel did," Katie Blossfield Iannitelli, a breast cancer fighter, wrote to Imerman Angels.
“By selflessly founding Imerman Angels on the belief that no one should have to fight cancer alone and without the necessary support, Jonny Imerman was filling a gaping hole in cancer survivorship,” says Doug Ulman, president and CEO of Livestrong, the nonprofit established by cyclist Lance Armstrong and a partner of Imerman Angels. “Livestrong considers Jonny, and all of the Angels, valued partners in our unified movement against cancer.”
For Imerman himself, one of the best ways of connecting with fellow cancer survivors and fighters has been to share his personal story. He does so with humor and without the least bit of shyness about the type of cancer he fought. "I'm super open about everything. You have to be if you want to help people with cancer."