Jonny Imerman, founder of Imerman Angels, is using his cancer journey to change the world of cancer. Now he’s inspiring cancer patients all over the world.
When he was just 26, his promising commercial real estate career stretched in front of him like an interstate. He was wearing a suit and tie by day, taking MBA classes by night, going to the gym, going out with friends and enjoying life. Then, all of the sudden, the semi-tractor trailer slammed him: He was diagnosed with testicular cancer—twice: once at age 26 and again at 28. Surgeons removed one testicle and installed a port in his arm to receive chemo, which he got eight hours a day, five days a week for five months.
Jonny’s life was turned upside down. He was in the hospital every day with cystic acne, loud ringing in his ears, excruciating mouth sores, rashes everywhere, and he lost all his hair. He couldn’t sleep because he was scared, and he had dark spots under his eyes. He looked poisoned, and he says that he was—from the chemo. He looked in the mirror one day and just cried because he didn’t recognize himself. “After so many days in a row of feeling so crappy, you forget what it feels like to feel good, and you start to wonder if you’ll ever look or feel normal again,” Jonny says.
His worst moment was when a blood clot clogged his port. He was rushed to the hospital to remove the port, and was put on TPA (thrombolytic therapy), a powerful but risky blood thinner to break up the clot. He recalls the event with clarity, “There was blood everywhere since the TPA made the port incision hemorrhage. I had massive chest pain, which scared me because it could signify that the clot had moved to my heart and could kill me. At one point I looked at my mom and said I was so grateful for her, that I’d had a great life. I wanted her to live in peace and not be sad that I didn’t make it. Then the chest pain went away, the side effects began to subside and I got better.
I will never regret that experience because it made me grateful for my life, and realize what I have. You can’t be happy without gratitude.”
Ever since that day, Jonny hasn’t cared about material things: He lives in a studio apartment, drives a Chevy truck and wears a regular T-shirt every day. “I’m a minimalist, and that’s one of the things that cancer taught me. When you don’t know if you’re going to live or die, you don’t care what kind of car you drive or about having the rooftop apartment in downtown.
Life is more about relationships, experiences, what we leave behind and what we give back.”
His mom, brothers and friends were always there for him, but he didn’t personally know any survivors who could give him hope. “I had like 10 people with a lot of good energy and positivity surrounding me at all times,” he recalls. It made him feel guilty when he saw so many people all alone while they are sick and getting chemo. They were miserable and depressed, while his room was full of awesome people.
So he began to act.
Jonny started walking into other patients’ rooms and introducing himself while he was getting chemo. Even after he beat cancer he would go back to going door to door to meet more people who were fighting for their lives. The connection was immediate: “Oh, you’re young too? Where did your cancer spread? What was your journey like?” And that’s when the idea hit to make a network of mentors and patients. He connects patients with survivors of their type of cancer so they can give them hope, just as he is doing with other patients.
Imerman Angels has been around for almost 10 years, and they have more than 8,000 mentors. “We just want the survivors and the rookies to get to know each other. Just put them in the same room, everything else will happen naturally.”
Becoming a mentor or a mentee is easy: Go to imermanangels.org; registration takes maybe 5-10 minutes. Mentors are all volunteers and are trained by an advisory board made up of doctors, nurses and other professionals. Then you’re set up and read to start inspiring cancer patients.
Jonny says humor is essential when you’re fighting cancer. “Profanity, humor, whatever; you NEED it. The brain can’t handle a life-and-death situation all the time. It helps to take it a little less seriously.”
A good sense of humor seems to run in Jonny’s family. When he was getting chemo, a gift arrived for him at the cancer center. His cousin sent him a box of cashews with a note that said, “Hey, I heard you needed some nuts.” Jonny says it made him laugh so hard and made his week. He loves one-nut jokes, and says nothing is taboo or untouchable. “During treatment I had to make fun of everything and laugh at it. Even watching slapstick humor movies was comic relief.”
Jonny’s one piece of advice for all cancer patients is to allow people to help you.
“The sooner you open up, the sooner you’ll realize that people love you and want to help. If you let them in, they’ll step up much more than you thought they would. Don’t isolate yourself”
Now Jonny is cancer free. He’s working out again, dating, traveling for speaking engagements and inspiring cancer patients around the world.
If you could give back like Jonny has, what would you do?
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