Jonny Imerman

Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Written by Lisa Hanchey

Imerman Angels take flight in Lafayette.

At age 26, Jonny Imerman was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Devastated, the young athlete started pondering his future: “Will I ever have a companion? Will I ever have children? Will I ever be the same?” It’s a fate no one should have to face alone...

While Imerman had the loving support of his family and friends, he was still missing something. “I had a great mom who was there every minute; my brothers, my friends — everyone was fantastic,” he recalls. “I simply had one missing puzzle piece — I could not find anybody my age, who was a guy, who could look me straight in the eye and tell me, ‘Look, Buddy, I’ve done this before — I endured cancer, and I beat it. Now, I’m back in the gym and working full-time. I’m happy, I’m healthy, and I’m in a relationship. I’m normal, and you’re going to be normal, too.’”

Imerman tackled his disease head-on, banking sperm to preserve his fertility, undergoing five months of grueling chemotherapy. A subsequent CT scan showed that everything was clear. But, a year later, another scan revealed four tumors. Through an incision in his stomach, doctors cut out the tumors, having to move Imerman’s organs out of the way in process, leaving behind a jagged 11-inch scar.

During his personal battle, Imerman came up with the idea to form a group matching cancer fighters, survivors and caregivers with peers for one-on-one support. “Through my own cancer fight, I saw what I thought was the biggest need in the cancer world — bridging the gap and bringing survivors closer,” he says.

In his native Michigan, Imerman gathered a group of cancer survivors, dubbed “Imerman’s Angels” by his mom, to create a network for cancer fighters. “One-on-one, we match a survivor with somebody the same age and the same gender, who is fighting the same cancer,” he explains. The program also pairs cancer caregivers — spouses, parents, children and friends of cancer fighters — with other caregivers and survivors. The free service is open to anyone touched by cancer.

Starting with 17 volunteers in 2003, Imerman worked with the angels in his spare time. By 2006, the network had grown to several hundred survivors from all over the U.S., driving Imerman to quit his day job. Now, Imerman’s Angels is headquartered in Chicago and has more than 3,000 cancer survivors and 1,500 caregivers from all 50 states and 35 countries in its network. As for Imerman, he is the picture of health at age 34, with a steady girlfriend who supports his mission.

Fortuitously, Crowley native Noelle Freeland, who lives in Chicago, turned to Imerman Angels when her father, Tommy, was diagnosed with non Hodgkins lymphoma. Working just a few blocks away from the Angels’ headquarters, Freeland became close friends with Imerman. For five years, she served as an Angels volunteer. In 2008, when Freeland herself was stricken with ovarian cancer, the first person she called was Imerman. “I couldn’t believe I had ‘caught’ cancer,” she says with a laugh. “It kind of turned the tables on me — I was a volunteer and then, all of a sudden, I became a cancer fighter.”

Today, Freeland is the beautiful, vivacious girl she was before. She finished chemo on Feb. 9, 2009, and is “doing great.” She continues to work in Chicago, traveling with Imerman to spread the word. She now is working with two Angels with ovarian cancer — one in New Jersey and the other in Chicago. “We e-mail constantly,” Freeland says. “You really form a bond with these people, even if they are not in your hometown.”

It was Freeland who brought Imerman to Louisiana, escorting him to cancer facilities throughout the state. In February, they made their first trip to the Hub City, where she introduced him to Miles Perret Cancer Services and another Lafayette institution — Lafonda. After that eventful trip, the pair returned to Louisiana in April, spending a day at the Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center and Cancer Services in Baton Rouge before heading back to Lafayette for a reception sponsored by Oncologics Inc.

The next stop was Camp Bluebird cancer retreat in DeRidder. “I just feel there is a huge need in Louisiana to get this out there, because we don’t have anything like this in Louisiana per se,” she says. “My goal is to get it established down in south Louisiana, then head up north, where they don’t have the resources that we do in south Louisiana.”

At the Lafayette reception held at Mazen’s, Imerman was mesmerizing as he described his journey from cancer victim to founder of the largest cancer support network of its kind. After the audience listened to his story, they peppered him with questions about the program. “How do the Angels keep in touch when they don’t live in the same town?” Imerman’s answer: by phone (the majority of contacts are made by phone, and are paid for with donated calling cards), e-mail or Skype.

“How is it funded?” Answer: Through donations, but the organization never asks for money.

Where do the survivors, caregivers and cancer fighters find out about the program?” Answer: “I call it the ‘three bucket’ system: One is through the medical system — places like M.D. Anderson, major and smaller cancer centers, and medical professionals — two is through places like the LIVESTRONG program, the American Cancer Society and Miles Perret, and three is everything else, like the media, etc.”

“Our No. 1 goal in Louisiana is to find the people with cancer,” Imerman told the local audience.

The Angels staff of five full-time employees makes every effort to quickly connect cancer patients. “Our goal by 2013 is that pretty much everyone in the world is aware of Imerman Angels and is connected with a survivor within 24 hours of contacting us,” adds Freeland.

To be paired with a cancer fighter, survivor or caregiver, contact Imerman Angels at 1-877-274-5529, or check out its Web site at www.imermanangels.org. Donated phone cards are available for participants.

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