Jonny Imerman: Giving back is a way to move forward

Jonny Imerman: Giving back is a way to move forward

“It’s almost like I had to build this organization, go through all this, to be done with it.”

Jonny Imerman was diagnosed with testicular cancer at age 26. During chemo and then while recovering from surgery to remove four tumors behind his kidneys, Jonny’s room was full of family and friends. “I had the best support in the world – the best mom and lot of friends, all this love and support, people laughing, keeping it positive,” he says. When he had to use the bathroom or wanted to stretch his legs, “I would take the IV pole and walk down hallway, and you can’t help but look through the glass into other rooms,” he says. “Most rooms didn’t look like mine – most people were by themselves. You know, the family is working, or don’t live in town, or is just busy. People looked depressed and defeated. I started to feel guilty every day. Eventually the guilt started piling up.”

So Jonny started walking into people’s rooms.

“I found that people were instantly open, wanted to connect, they would talk to anybody. I was just trying to give positive energy, you know? At the end of my treatment, I realized survivors should be the ones to keep doing this work,” he says.

Johnny organized the other young cancer patients he’d met during treatment to give back. “We were a bunch of young guys. The docs knew us and loved it when we’d go into rooms. We would just go talk to people, door to door, all day Saturday, Tuesday after work. Trying to give back, you know? It felt good, felt right,” he says.

Eventually Jonny decided to call his informal group an organization.

“My mom said, ‘all these survivor buddies of yours are like angels,’” Jonny says. They decided to call the group Imerman’s Angels, and instead of just walking into rooms to offer company and support, Imerman’s Angels started matching cancer patients with survivors like them.

“I realized it was great for a 27- or 28-year-old survivor to walk into a room, but what if the patient’s a 70-year-old woman with ovarian cancer? I realized it’s even better to match by age, gender, sometimes people ask for religion or things like that. Now that 70-year-old woman can meet someone like her who survived and talk about things like where they got wigs, how to manage hormones. Now there’s someone to talk to who’s already walked the walk,” Jonny says.

Today Imerman’s Angels has gathered a database of over 10,000 survivors willing to be matched with patients to act as peer mentors. The organization also matches parents and spouses of cancer patients with people like them whose loved ones have fought cancer.

Meanwhile, after 10 years of “going to conferences, visiting hospitals, talking about cancer 24/7,” Jonny is trying his best to step back from working with cancer all day, every day. With a friend, he co-founded the startup Cloz Talk, which provides branded merchandise for nonprofits in the cancer community and beyond. And he finally hired a manager to help run Imerman’s Angels.

“For a while it was all I did, but if it’s cancer, cancer, cancer all the time, that can make you feel stuck a little bit. From a self-care standpoint, it’s good to have boundaries. I identify as a cancer survivor, but I love that it’s a part of me, not all of me. I want to have more in my life than just cancer.”

For Jonny Imerman, it turns out that spending a decade giving back was an essential piece of his own healing.

“At first, I didn’t really know what I was doing other than I wanted to find something positive. It just felt good. I knew people needed it,” he says. “But what I realized looking back is that it’s a healing process of finding peace – peace with the trauma of the whole thing. It’s almost like I had to build this organization, go through all this, to be done with it.”