Maybe it’s because he’s named Jonny, or maybe it’s because he survived cancer, but Jonny Imerman is the most positive, people-loving person you’ll ever met. His struggle with cancer at the young age of 26 led to his life’s work: Imerman Angels, an organization uniting cancer patients and survivors in a global community that champions the power of positive thinking. The phrase “battle with cancer” gained new meaning during the course of the conversation: cancer patients undergo an ordeal that renegotiates their place in the grand-scheme-of-things. As Jonny describes it, cancer survivors have fought the battle of/for their lives, and they usually land on the other side stronger than ever. His boundless energy and enthusiasm are apparent. Jonny Imerman’s sentences never really end: he makes connections so effortlessly that he never seems to pause.
F: Where did your very open and friendly personality come from?
Pre-cancer, I always loved connecting people. It really wasn’t a shock to realize I could use that skill for the greater good within the cancer world. After going through cancer, it just made sense. I took who was before and said, “Now I have an insider knowledge of the cancer world, and there’s a gap here.” I had wanted somebody my age – a young guy – who could tell me, “Look bro, I’ve in your shoes. Now I’m 30 and I’m back in the basketball court; I’m raising a family; I’m working full-time; I’m living my life, my hair’s growing back.” All those things that you want to see: survivors can tell you that.
I come from a very warm, loving family: I talk to my mother and my brother just about every day. I was very lucky; I had a lot of love to help me during my fight. I was surrounded by love growing up, so I would accredit that to being an upbeat, friendly person.
F: Can you walk us through what went through your head when you were first diagnosed with cancer?
When I got first diagnosed, obviously it was the last thing I was thinking about. I had pain in my testicle. Only 10% of people feel pain, but I was lucky because it alerted me to the problem.
I couldn’t believe it: I was like, “Really, this is cancer?” I’m not a reactive guy, “So I went the doctor and said, “OK… cancer. What’s the game plan? What are we going to do to get this out?” I never really got angry; I never said, “Why me?” As soon as I got to the clinic and went through surgeries and chemo, I looked around and said, “Why these people? What about the seventeen-year old kid two doors down from me who’s got brain cancer. Why that kid?”
Maybe, again, it was my family and the training I’ve had growing up: I was always taught to be community-minded and to think of others. Being a good person: that’s what life is about. I never got angry; that never entered my mind as a possibility, so I just didn’t do it.
F: Is there a difference between Jonny pre-cancer and Jonny post-cancer?
The biggest difference is my energy is channeled. Before cancer I had a ton of energy, but I really didn’t know what I was meant to do in this world. Post-cancer, it is absolutely crystal-clear why I’m here and what I was looking to do: how I’m supposed to change the cancer world and create a movement. And I couldn’t be having more fun doing it, surrounded by these cancer survivors who are such compassionate people – who need no reward other than knowing they’ve helped someone overcome the biggest obstacle in their life! To put it in very direct terms, it’s like living a dream: I get to help people every day.
F: Your foundation pairs up cancer survivors with cancer patients. How effective is this tactic in fighting the battle against cancer?
Since Day One I’ve believed that collaboration in the cancer world is the key, socially and emotionally. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. We have guys who have fought and finally won at the end of 8 years – 8 years! If you can’t keep your mind focused on the finish line – if you don’t believe it exists – then I think it’s tough. The body can fold if you believe you won’t live to see your next birthday.
I personally believe that’s not good for your body. I think the body gets the will to fight from your brain. We survivors can motivate/empower/inspire/pump up patients that are in the clinic and make them believe, “Hey I did it – you can too.” There’s no question in my mind: that person’s more likely to beat cancer.
I hear it all the time from oncologists: “You know what, Jonny, I can’t give you any empirical data of my own, but it just seems that the ones who walk in with their chin up – a smile on their face, ready to fight, believing that they’re going to walk out of that clinic one day a healthy man – those guys tend to do better. The people that walk in heads lowered, looking like they’ve already been defeated, they tend not to do as well.”
Lance Armstrong is your best example: the guy that every doctor wrote off, saying, “You have Stage 4 testicular cancer spreading into your lung, into your abdomen, all over your stomach, and into your brain.” He had two brain surgeries, and he still beat it. He would ride his bike during chemo: he was determined to keep fighting and keep exercising, and he believed he could win. I think he was probably the greatest athlete ever to walk the earth, in any sport. At 26, he just wouldn’t give up. We in the cancer world all believe that makes a huge difference.
F: What is your advice to people going through tough times?
My advice is to connect; I’m a huge believer in teamwork and collaboration. It’s sometimes hard for people to reach out and ask for help, to open up a conversation that is scary for a lot of people.
We have 1800 survivors in our network who all believe in one idea:that together our stories are powerful and that every survivor has something to give – that’s why they register with us. My advice is to take it. When you’re fighting cancer, you feel alone. It’s OK to reach out – I couldn’t do it on my own and I don’t know who could. Keep strong; keep motivated; connect with other people your age. Your peers simply want to help you, and it’s OK to receive help.
F: Why might it be hard for people to reach out?
Some people have an old-school mentality of “I can do this on my own.” I understand and have sympathy for those people, because they grew up in an era when people didn’t talk about cancer. If you said your kid had cancer thirty years ago, other parents wouldn’t let their kids play with your kid because they were afraid they could catch something.
Our generation – especially the younger people, with Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and all the social networking sites – is much more open. I’ve had people call me on their cell phone from the parking lot of the hospital, five minutes after walking out of the doctor’s meeting, just diagnosed, saying, “My doctor gave this to me, I’m in the parking lot, my head’s spinning, I have cancer and I don’t know where to go from here. Can you introduce me to someone who can help me?”
F: A lot of people have been quite inspired by you – who, in turn, inspires you?
I’m inspired by every single cancer survivor who has called me and said “I love this idea; I want to give back.” That inspires me every day: the selfless side of people who have been through cancer and simply want to make it better. These survivors are complete; they’ve got their life back; they’re rebuilding: they’re good to go. But they don’t just turn the cheek and say, “I’m going to forget everything that’s happened to me in the last two years.” They get back in it because they realize there’s other people out there still in the clinic, people who are still fighting for their lives, their families.
I’m also very inspired by a lot of our volunteers who have never had cancer. You don’t have to get cancer to inspire me, but you have to be passionate; you’ve got to believe in something that you know helps people; and you just can’t quit.
Can you walk us through your typical day?
My typical day is all-over-the-map [literally]. I’m around people 95% of the time and at home 1% of the time: I sleep at home, that’s about it. I travel a lot: 7 cities in the past 8 weeks. I spend a lot of time speaking: tomorrow [Saturday] night I’m speaking at a Chicago Fire game. I spend a lot of my days talking to fighters and survivors. I need to find the guys that are sick, and I need to get cancer survivors to register. By 2013 we want every single American diagnosed with cancer to have free access to one of our survivors, so that no one who is diagnosed with cancer feels alone!
Next month I’ll be in Ireland for a conference. Lance Armstrong is hosting a 250-person summit in Dublin, Ireland after he finishes the race at the end of this month. We were very flattered to be one of those two-hundred fifty groups. The goal is to globally work together to unite the cancer world. I know the guy who runs the cancer group in Scotland; I know the guy who runs the cancer group in the Philippines; I know the guy who runs the cancer group in Australia. We’re the largest one-on-one matching cancer group in the world, so they refer patients to us when they see a need – they outsource it. That’s how we find so many people in Germany, Nigeria, and Cape Town: we help people in all those cities.
F: How do you channel your love of life living here in Chicago?
I love Chicago, I really do. Chicago has been an amazing launching pad for this idea; the city’s really embraced it. I love sports: basketball, football, frisbee on the beach, volleyball. I’m running my second marathon this year.
F: Are you a Cubs or White Sox fan? Who are your favorite Chicago athletes?
I probably like the Cubs a little bit better; I love Wrigley, I love the energy up there. When I go to games I talk to people – I don’t really end up watching the game.
I’m a Detroit Tiger’s fan at heart. Magglio Ordonez is on the Tigers, and he just cut his hair and held an auction to get the word out about Imerman Angels.
I like Jake Cutler: he’s going to be the Bears quarterback. Everyone’s excited about him athletically, but I love that he’s done a lot of great things for diabetes since he was diagnosed himself.
F: Aside from the weather, is there anything you don’t like about Chicago?
I wouldn’t even say the weather; a lot of people complain about the weather here, but I like changing seasons – keeps it interesting. I grew up in Michigan, so it’s not that bad. I love the beach in the summer, and the people are the best part!
There’s really nothing I don’t like about this city; I want this to be home. There may be a time I live in New York or LA for a couple of years to build Imerman Angels, but I’d like to make this home.
F: We heard you guys throw some of the best parties in the city to aid in your fundraising efforts – anything coming up soon?
On August 30, we are going to do a one-hour fashion show at Galleria Marchetti with Akira. It’s our biggest event of the year, and it’s only $15. I want cancer survivors to be able to afford our events: it’s about connecting and including, definitely not excluding. This tends to be the youngest event we do: almost all people in their late 20s, early 30s.
F: Are there questions that you wish were asked more often when you give interviews? What’s the most common question asked of you?
Do we help anyone else besides cancer fighters and survivors?
We help caregivers also! Say we have a 2-year old girl with leukemia; we’ll partner that mother and father up with another set of parents that have a 5-year old little girl who beat the same leukemia three years ago. So the other set of parents can say, “Look – our little kid did it. We know the ropes. We’ve been through this.” It’s all positive, all success stories: one family helping another. It’s really that simple: people helping people.