Presenter: Hannah Stanley
Guest: Jonny Imerman
Guest Bio: Jonny Imerman is the founder of the organisation Imerman Angels.
Jonny Imerman discusses his global cancer support organization and how the one-on-one method helps cancer fighters.
Health Professional Radio – Global Cancer Support Organization
Hannah Stanley: This is Hannah Stanley and you’re listening to Health Professional Radio. Today I’m joined by Jonny Imerman, founder of the organisation Imerman Angels. You can find them at ImermanAngels.org. Now Jonny, while you are based here in the United States, you are a global organisation, so tell us a little bit about how you started.
Johnny Imerman: Yes Hannah, we are global. We started in the beginning in Michigan. I was diagnosed at 26 years old with testicular cancer. Went through chemo and surgeries and so forth, and really what happened was I looked at the system while going through all these treatments and said, “What’s the missing piece?” Once I do this thing and I get through this cancer, if I do, how can I get back and help other people? The key way I really thought to help other people was my story.
You live through the experience, you understand the ins and outs of the cancer fight. You know how chemo feels, you know some tips along the way, and you learn a lot about it. Sharing that story back, to me, felt like the number one best way to give back. So what we did is we created an organisation, and again it was started in Michigan, and now it’s based here in Chicago, Illinios. But it’s a global organisation.
We’re in over 60 countries and growing, and if anyone has cancer, anywhere in the world, they call Imerman Angels, and we find you a cancer survivor. Someone who’s been through the same thing and survived. It can help, can share the story and motivate and basically shed light on the road ahead. No one who’s starting this fight, that first step of the marathon of cancer has to go through this thing thinking they’re the only one in the world who has it. So it’s a one-on-one peer cancer support.
People fighting cancer, [01:48 indecipherable] just like them. In addition, we have caregivers, so the caregiver, who is a wife let’s say, or a mother, with a five-year-old son going through cancer. We match the mother with the parent of a 10-year-old who says, “My kid already went through this same thing. We get it.” So it can be one-to-one peer mentoring for caregivers, people going through cancer, survivors, anyone out there. It’s this buddy system that makes sure no one fights cancer alone.
Hannah: Now you alluded to it just a moment ago with a mom of a son to a mom of a son, caregivers supporting each other. But what I want to make sure we do stress is that you’re able, because of your vast network of 5,000 plus cancer survivors, you’re able to drill down and match that current fighter with a survivor who has as closely related a cancer and a story as the person who’s fighting it.
Johnny: Exactly. You know, it’s all based, Hannah, on the size of your network and we’re between five and 6,000 male cancer survivors and caregivers [02:54 indecipherable] back and help the next guy out, they’re all volunteers. So that’s the key, is to find the best match. If you find someone who’s, let’s say, living in Kansas, she’s 40 with lung cancer stage two, we might know somebody in Sydney, Australia, who is 48 and that same person beat stage two lung cancer five years ago and they’re a perfect fit.
But it’s all based on the network. Right now it’s between five and 6,000 cancer survivors who are registered and trained. In our network we want that number to get to millions, because theoretically the bigger the network, the larger and more vast the network is, [03:36 indecipherable] we can find one-to-one matches for everyone. Make it more and more accurate as we get bigger.
Hannah: Something that affects everybody is where they live, what they’re going through, and the treatments are really so similar throughout the globe that you’re able to put these people together who have very different cultures perhaps, but would very much be able to support and understand what that fighter is going through based on the fact that they identified with the same treatments or something. Now given that you are matching these people one-on-one, what have you learned over the past several years since this organisation began, about the one-on-one support system and what it does for patients’ spirits and morale?
Johnny: We’ve learned a lot, Hannah. It is a powerful motivator. It’s all based on connection. It’s based on shared experience and empathy, really. Empathy is such a powerful, powerful thing, and the great quote from the famous counselor, Brene Brown, in Texas, who said that the two most powerful words in the world when you’re going through life’s hardest challenges are simply, “Me, too. Me, too.” That’s really what we’re going after with Imerman Angels.
We’re trying to hook you up with somebody right away who can say, “Me, too,” or, “I’ve been there,” or, “I did that,” or, “I relate,” or, “You’re not crazy.” Or “I know you’re scared. Guess what? I was scared too, but I did it and I beat it and I’m back in the gym and I’m healthy and I’m normal and I’m living a great life and I relate. But you’re not alone. You’re not the only one in the world.” Those are the messages. That’s the motivation.
That’s the fire-up we’re trying to give the guys who are fighting cancer. They know someone like them, who does relate and understands and simply wants to volunteer to help them. I always said this idea would never work unless survivors cared that much to volunteer their stories to talk to these people who are going through the same thing and help them and motivate them. That’s why it works.
Hannah: Based on your story, when you were going through cancer as a 20-something, you had support from your family but you didn’t have anybody that was the shining example of success. You didn’t know what the other side of cancer looked like.
Johnny: That is very true. I felt like the only kid in the world at 26, when I had cancer, who was going through cancer. I didn’t know anyone in the world. I would have loved to have a buddy who I could have Skyped with, I could have called, I could’ve asked questions to, or even better, met in person [06:10 indecipherable] I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know any survivors. My friends were great. I had a lot of support. Physically I was surrounded with people who love me, and that’s awesome, and I’m very grateful for that.
But it’s a different sort of friendship than it is with somebody who can look you in the eye or Skype with you and say, “Oh, yeah. I know exactly what you’re going through because I’ve actually been there.” That’s what we’re going after, is empathy, connection, shared experience. Grouping people [06:38 indecipherable] shared experience, so people help people [06:40 indecipherable].
Hannah: You mentioned earlier about how you’re between five and 6,000 current members in that survivor network who are, and you said the word, trained.
Johnny: Absolutely. That’s a big piece, getting these people trained the right way. We’ve got to know that these survivors are going to deliver. Right? That they really have been through this story, that they’re authentic, that they have the time and the ability to share it with somebody else when we need them, and to call them. So what we love is that when people are fighting cancer, are looking for help and they sign up on our website, ImermanAngels.org, or if they’re looking to give back as a survivor or caregiver, as mentor, so sign up online anywhere in the world at ImermanAngels.org. Then we Skype them or we call them, and we do about a 20-30 minute training over the phone.
We go through some to-dos and not-to-dos, but really number one not-to-do while mentoring, and that we have to train everyone, is that we don’t want them to play doctor. We don’t want them to. It sounds funny when you say it, but we don’t want them to tell the patient, “Oh, take this drug, don’t take that drug.” Because that’s up to the doctor and that’s up to the medical professionals. We, the survivors, are friends and support.
We give a lot of help and encouragement and shared experience, but we don’t want to play doctor. We want to let who’s calling the shots medically, what to take treatment-wise are always up to the doctor. So we go through some to-dos and not-to-dos, and some of the to-dos are keep it positive, take [08:14 indecipherable] mentee, things that seem pretty common sense while mentoring. But just stuff we have to go through. Then in addition we have a mentor guidebook that we created as well. We do mail that or email that to all of our mentors so that they can use that with some tips on mentoring as well.
But it’s really important that you train them, you get to know them at the same time while doing that training. You capture all of the contact information and the cancer information accurate as you can. You want to make sure, that information is going to be really important when we match them. We want to know everything about their cancer story, even about them personally, like their hobbies. All that’s relevant when we match them, because we want to find matches that really are going to work for the mentee.
Hannah: So even if they might not be quite as closely matched on cancer, a stage two diagnosis with a stage three, let’s say, but they’re both golf fanatics, that would be something that would connect those people and really encourage them, more so than a more specific cancer diagnosis.
Johnny: Exactly, Hannah. The goal is you want these people to be friends. It’s great when they line up perfectly on the cancer side, and that’s our goal, but it also is important that if they’re both golf fanatics they’re probably going to get along better and they’re probably going to [09:30 indecipherable] something else to talk about. They’re probably going to be friends even that much more, because sometimes what happens is we just have people who are alone. They’re going through cancer and they just want to talk to anyone.
Then you find a survivor who’s been through the same thing who also shares a lot of their common interests, and this person really finds someone they want to talk to. That’s the goal. You want to build long-term friendships where these Angel survivors are really helping and mentoring the whole way through. But you’ve got to look at hobbies and you’ve got to look at personality types. That’s equally as important as the cancer information oftentimes.
Hannah: Definitely more important than the country that they live in. This is Hannah Stanley and you’re listening to Health Professional Radio. Today I’m joined by Jonny Imerman, founder of Imerman Angels. You can get more information at ImermanAngels.com. This concludes part one of our two-part interview with Jonny. Please stay tuned for part two.