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The Fighterby Matt Lee | Photo: Saverio Truglia | Men's Book Chicago magazine | March 4, 2013
He’s one of the most well-known men in Chicago, but Jonny Imerman is far more than a man-about-town. After beating cancer at age 26 he founded nonprofit Imerman Angels in 2003. Its mission is simple: to pair “fighters,” those recently diagnosed or undergoing treatment for cancer, with “survivors,” or people who have beaten the disease, for one-on-one peer mentoring. We sat down with Imerman for the scoop.
You seem to know everyone, but a lot of people might not know exactly what Imerman Angels is. Can you tell us how you started the organization? It was just helping one person with cancer. It was that simple. After I went through my own cancer I thought, ‘I know what chemo feels like, I know what the pills are, I know what Decadron is…’ You know the whole language, and you can help someone who’s just starting that marathon. Take a woman diagnosed with breast cancer in her 60s. She’s taking her first step, she doesn’t know the jargon, she’s starting from zero. It’s really scary. The goal is to find a survivor who can say, ‘I’ve done this before, I beat it, I speak the language, I know the side effects, I’m with you every step.’
So if someone diagnosed with cancer learns about the organization, contacts you—what happens? The easiest way is if the person has Internet access. If they don’t they can call 1.866.Imerman and we hook ’em up over the phone, no problem. But it’s probably easier if you go to imermanangels.org and click on ‘Become a Mentor’ or ‘Request Support.’ We put all the possible demographic information on the form so, if it’s important to you—even things like religion, sexual orientation—you can type it in. It takes about 10 minutes. After that we call you. And all the people who do these calls are survivors, which is really nice, because immediately your caller’s saying, ‘Hi Mrs. Johnson, I’m a survivor too; tell me what you’re going through.’ Then we get to know them. Mrs. Jonnson might say, ‘I have breast cancer, I’m in my 60s, it’s stage 2, ER-positive, HER2-negative, I have Adriamycin Cytoxan coming up…’ We take all this stuff and then we look in our network and find a prescreened, trained survivor. Then we send a really simple joint email and make an introduction. Generally the survivor calls first. We check in a week or two later and make sure it’s a good fit.
When you hear back from a fighter, what do they most appreciate about the relationship? I think the top source of value is, ‘I’m not alone, someone understands me, someone gets me.’ Another thing we hear a lot is, ‘I learned so much about the uncertainties, what the terms are, I was able to form a picture of my first day of chemo before I had to go in.’ It’s the friendship and the knowledge.
You have a big year ahead. We’re in a healthy place. There’s always room to keep growing. We’re able to help thousands of people every year in more than 60 countries. It doesn’t matter where you live, we’ve helped people in London, Paris, South Africa, Togo! We were laughing in the office, ‘Someone just signed up in Togo; how did they find us?’ And it could be through Google. Google gives us $10,000 of credit keywords every month; we’re huge Google fans. So people type in, ‘I want to meet a survivor like me,’ or ‘I’m alone with cancer,’ and, boom, we’re on top of the list, anywhere in the world. I always say we’re the biggest at what we do and we’re helping thousands of people, but we want to help millions. That’s our goal. And we’re looking at a new office in the Loop. It’s 4,600 square feet. We have six full-time staff, seven interns and about 10 or so cancer survivors who come in and help with phones, so there’s sometimes 15 to 20 people in the room and we just need more space.
You’re also planning your first gala. That’s right, Sept. 28 we’re going to do our first gala. I love that we’re grassroots, pound the pavement, get the word out, casual. But at the same time it’s our sixth year now and our board said we have to do our first gala.
Livestrong is a huge supporter of the organization… they’ve been in the news a lot for obvious reasons. I’m a huge Livestrong fan; what they do for people with cancer is outstanding. They help tens of thousands of people in America and beyond, and they’re also one of our biggest funders. They help us grow, they help us get better at what we do. I think it’s really important that people separate Lance Armstrong, what happened or didn’t happen in the sport, versus what he created 15 years ago. This baby has grown up and is now a 100-person army of committed, passionate, loving employees who help people every day. They have an outstanding leader now in Doug Ulman.
Out of everything we’ve discussed, what’s the most satisfying part for you? A couple of things are a tie. We have a set of core values on our wall in every room in our office, and No. 1 is, ‘Mission first, people first.’ That’s what it’s about, so having someone call and say, ‘My gosh, I’ve just crushed my cancer and meeting Miriam was the greatest thing to happen through this whole experience,’ that’s amazing. And seeing that cycle where we help someone and they want to flip around into the angel position is one of the most exciting things that any of us in the office can experience. The other part for me is the 2012 Imerman Angels team, the committed survivors, the network of thousands helping other people, and, just as important, the six people in the office who care so much about what we do.
You’re such a healthful, positive person. Were those things impacted by your experience with cancer; was that a silver lining? I think it is in many ways. It’s a wake-up call for so many people who go through cancer and survive. I do believe the majority of us get healthier, go to the gym more, want to give back more. I think in general survivors tend to be very positive people.