After treatment, my life looked a lot different at 28 from the lives of my friends who were in their 20s. I thought differently. I loved them and they were great friends and I didn’t judge them, but I felt I could see things—at least in my mind—more clearly.
I saw that life wasn’t just about having the most money or the most stuff. When you’re sick and fighting for your life, you could care less about how big your house is or if you’re wearing an Armani suit. In fact, in many ways material objects don’t make us any happier and cloud us. For me, it’s about giving back and leaving a footprint on the world, making it a better place because you were there.
I was diagnosed when I was 26 and working in commercial real estate. I knew the job wasn’t the end-all, but I made decent money and could support myself. I liked all the working with people, but I didn’t know what my real calling was. Life has a way of slapping us in the face, though, with a calling or mission sometimes, and you get almost obsessed with it.
In treatment, I didn’t know any survivors. I felt like I was the only 26-year old in the world going through cancer. After treatment, I started visiting other young cancer patients at the hospitals where I was treated. All these conversations—with all the questions they had, and all the tips I could offer as a survivor—made me realize there was something bigger here.
That’s where I got the idea for Imerman Angels—to find people who fight cancer alone, find them a survivor like them who beat it and who’s fine, and show them that there can be a happy road at the end of cancer.
I don’t think before cancer I would ever have started an organization full-time. I don’t know if it was in my blood. After I got Imerman Angels off the ground, I was like, ‘Whatever! I believe in this and, if it fails, we’re going to help as many people as we can!’ I wasn’t afraid of failing—and I think there’s a little bit of that in every survivor.
It made me very comfortable to say, ‘Hey, what’s the worst that can happen? I can move to Chicago, I can get a new place, I can start a company—I can do whatever I want to do. If everything goes bad, guess what? I’m still alive.’ That attitude has helped me a lot.
Going through the cancer experience is revealing. It rattled me so much—more than anything else in the whole world by far. I didn’t look or feel good and I didn’t like the over weight, out of shape zombie person looking back at me in the mirror. It was hard, and I missed my old life. My feelings went up and down like a roller coaster. But that’s what helps us build our self-identity back up, to be the person we want to be.
In many ways, I’m still the same person I was before cancer: I loved people before and I really love people afterward. I’m still super social. I’ve also been the kind of person who would go crazy if I had to study for hours and hours or sit for a long time. But the main difference is that my energy is more channeled. I was always high energy, but cancer focused it to create Imerman Angels. That new sense of purpose gives me a lot of joy.
I’m probably twice as patient as I was before. That’s helped me to find more inner peace in life and in everything I do.
It doesn’t mean I don’t get down. I’ve lost a lot of people to cancer. I went to four funerals the past month, and the oldest was only 34. That energizes you to help the next person because you know how important friendship is for us. But I can also get down because I always feel the person who’s died deserved more of my time.
My life is pretty simple. My mom would probably tell you I’m the least materialistic person in the world. I’m not really into fashion at all—I wear a t-shirt every day. Do my clothes keep me warm? Awesome. Same for a car. Does it get me from A to B? Awesome. A hundred-square-foot studio in Chicago? Awesome. I love it. I wanna own smaller and fewer things. They distract us from what’s really important.
Right after I beat cancer, hearing some of my friends complain about unimportant things got to me. I kept thinking, ‘What?!? That’s not a big deal.’ But I know now never to be condescending. I’ve learned not to judge. It’s a big deal to them so you honor it, and you help them through it, no matter how small it is.
In my late 30s, I’ve learned that a lot happens in life; not just cancer. People catch up to each other. People lose a brother, a friend; life can be crazy. At 27, I felt I was in a different place than my peers. But mortal challenges humble you; they soften you. All you want afterward are great people in your life, great relationships and experiences.
Jonny is a 10-year survivor.