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Courtesy of the Janes family

From left to right, Dr. Jason Canner, Julia Janes, Rynell Cook and Jonny Imerman at Advocate Hope Children's Hospital in Chicago. Rynell, an employee at Imerman Angels and a cancer survivor, is an 'angel' for Julia, a cancer fighter. Rynell and Julia met each other Thursday in person for the first time.

Chicago cancer support group matches those fighting the illness with earthly ‘angels’

by Amber Lindke
May 12, 2010


Courtesy of the Janes family

Julia and Rynell share the experiences of battling cancer.

“You’re standing on the edge of a cliff and you don’t know which way the wind is going to blow you,” said 34-year-old Chicago cancer survivor, Jonny Imerman.

That’s how he felt eight years ago when he was working on an MBA in Michigan and was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He made a promise to himself. If he survived, he would find a way to provide mentors for other cancer fighters who didn't have the kind of support system that he had during his battle with the illness.

The two-time cancer survivor kept his promise in 2003 after moving to Chicago and launching Imerman Angels, a support group that has mushroomed into an international one-on-one mentoring organization based in Chicago.

“I believe and know the more we motivate, inspire and empower people, they’re going to believe the winds going to blow them back on land and not over the edge of the cliff,” he said.

Imerman is the founder and chief mission officer of Imerman Angels, the not-for-profit group that matches cancer fighters with cancer survivors of the same gender and age. Partners have the same kind of cancer in common as well. 

“I know what it feels like to be on that bed, to be scared, to be sliced open 11 inches in your stomach,” he said. “I know what it’s like to wake up in the morning knowing that surgery is coming and not being sure that it is going to work.”

Today, he works full time, traveling approximately 50 percent of the time carrying out Imerman Angels’ mission through speeches. He runs half marathons and enjoys spending time with his family and friends.

“I live like everybody else lives and life’s great,” he said.

But he wishes he had had a mentor, an angel, to tell him that, “At the end of this there is a great life that’s worth fighting for,” he said. “I wanted to hear ‘you’re going win your life back and it’s going to be better than it was before.’”

The ultimate goal of Imerman Angels, which currently has a network of approximately 2,500 survivors in 50 states and 35 countries, is to provide free access to a survivor within 24 hours of a person’s cancer diagnosis.

“Everyone fighting cancer deserves to have a friend, confidante, buddy or partner who understands,” he said of cancer, the number two killer behind heart disease in the United States.

“It’s hard to have a bad day working with Jonny and Imerman Angels. His passion is definitely contagious,” said Rynell Cook, Imerman Angel’s Connections Manager.

Cook, a 14-year survivor of Ewing’s sarcoma cancer, said she is inspired by Imerman’s “drive to help people every day by making sure that no one faces cancer alone.” She is also an angel herself.

Imerman Angels also offers caregiver support. For example, parents of young children who are cancer fighters can be paired with other parents whose children have beaten the same type of cancer. This service can also be used to provide emotional support for spouses or siblings of a cancer fighter through his organization.

“'Knowledge is power,’” Imerman said as he quoted Lance Armstrong, whose foundation, LIVESTRONG, is the largest source of survivors for Imerman Angels.

He said that unlike most family members and friends, “Survivors bring knowledge back to the table because they have had time to research it. They have lived through it. They have asked questions. They have met with the doctors. They speak the language that needs to be shared with people who are sick.”

Imerman describes the cancer fighter and survivor partnership as a mutually beneficial experience.

He receives emails and phone calls on a regular basis from cancer fighters saying that Imerman Angels has changed their lives.

“'This gave me hope when I had zero. This got me out of bed when I was in bed straight for seven days in the dark because I was so depressed I couldn’t face that I had cancer. This got me out of that bed,'” cancer fighters tell Imerman after being matched with a survivor.

Cancer survivors have called Imerman Angels, he said, frustrated that they haven’t found a way to help others with cancer. Imerman Angels has provided those survivors with an organized platform and vehicle to act as a mentor for other cancer fighters.

“Survivors call and say, ‘My fighter beat it and I’m so happy and I was there for them every step of the way, but I never expected it to help me,’” he said.

When survivors tell their story, “There’s a purpose all the sudden. Why did we go through all these chemos and surgeries? If you’ve learned something that you can give back as a gift, there’s a purpose. You can give people hope because you’ve done it before,” he said.

To volunteer to become an Imerman Angel survivor, one of Imerman’s five employees conducts an informal interview over the phone. Most of the cancer survivors who volunteer their work as mentors are capable and committed, he said.

“My life is meaningful and worthwhile to me when I make the community a better place,” he said.

Imerman said he is always running in fifth gear. He won’t rest until everyone thinks of Imerman Angels as the Kleenex brand. Only then will he, “take a break," he said. “Then we’ll take a vacation,” he said with a laugh.

“It’s the greatest feeling in the world to see a team of people build an idea,” Imerman said. “We’re changing the world.”