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Finding Their Match: Imerman Angels Provides 1-on-1 Support for Cancer Survivors and Caregivers

Tue, Oct 21, 2014

Hector Nunez, chief operating officer of Imerman Angels is a cancer survivor himself. (Photo: Suzanne Hanney)

Hector Nunez, chief operating officer of Imerman Angels is a cancer survivor himself. (Photo: Suzanne Hanney)

When triple negative breast cancer survivor Gina Nolan wanted to go to a Cubs game a week after her first chemotherapy treatment following surgery in July 2010, she called her Imerman Angel mentor for advice. Nolan, who lives in the western suburbs, worried that chemo would bring her resistance down and make her more susceptible to a cold. Her Mentor Angel – also a triple negative survivor – told her to bring hand sanitizer and wipes to use on anything she touched.

Hector Nunez was a hotel industry executive splitting his time between Chicago and Mexico when he learned that he had aggressive Stage IV head and neck cancer. Nunez contacted Imerman Angels for a Mentor Angel who was also male and at the same stage of cancer. He feared he would never swallow food or wine again, that he would wear an exterior stomach pouch.

Instead, Nunez’s Mentor Angel told him about bandaging that preserved more of the muscles and skin under his chin. He also strongly recommended swallowing exercises, via email, since Nunez could not talk at the time.

“It’s going to hurt but you will be able to swallow again if you exercise that muscle; it’s just atrophied,” Nunez recalled his Mentor Angel’s words. “The same thing with your hearing. Your body is going to adapt, it’s just going to take some time.”

And George Ramos is a police officer in the Quad Cities whose wife was diagnosed in 2009 with stage IIb breast cancer: two invasive ductal tumors and one neuroendocrine. Initially he tried to be the strong person who kept everyone on an even keel, until he saw that was impossible. “I am so used to gaining control of an out-of-control situation and yet here I was with my own. I couldn’t call the fire department, I couldn’t call the police department to control it for me. There was no one I could call to get this situation under control and I had to learn to accept that.”

George Ramos and his wife, LaNae.

George Ramos and his wife, LaNae.

Ramos’s wife is now in remission but she still has severe joint problems and body aches left over from the chemo as well as lymphodema in her left arm. Although she has been cancer-free for five years, he admits to sleepless nights before her six-month checkups for fear of a recurrence.

Nolan, Nunez and Ramos are all Imerman Angels: cancer survivors and a caregiver who offer 1-on-1 help to people in similar circumstances. Founded by testicular cancer survivor Jonny Imerman in 2003, the Chicago-based nonprofit has made 10,000 matches so that these people have not had to face cancer alone. Among its 6,000 Mentor Angels in every state and 65 countries, breast cancer is the largest single component, at 2,000 matches and 1,165 currently active breast cancer Mentor Angels. There were 380 breast cancer patients helped last year and 272 to date this year.

Nolan’s Mentor Angel checked in on her after every chemo treatment, which was every other week for four months; Nolan usually called just as often but twice weekly in rough stretches. The Mentor Angel tried to keep Nolan upbeat. When Nolan was losing her hair, she related how she had shaved her own off just to take control of the situation.

Now a Mentor Angel herself, Nolan tells people to get as much knowledge as possible. What helped her, she said, was turning to a healthy diet and exercise. Through her oncologist she met with a nutritionist. She became a vegetarian and gave up all dairy except eggs. She lost 45 pounds in a year, gave up drinking soda and alcohol. It was a complete change in lifestyle but she is cancer-free.

Nunez said his recovery began the day he was diagnosed, despite dark moments of self-pity when he was afraid he was going to die. “But then there was a switch I turned on where I refused to think about it. You can set your mind to fail. I set my mind to live with a pouch and then I said to myself, ‘why don’t you fight for more, desire more.’”

Gina Nolan volunteered at the Oct. 12, 2014, Chicago Marathon with Imerman Angels.

Gina Nolan volunteered at the Oct. 12, 2014, Chicago Marathon with Imerman Angels.

You need a sense of entitlement in the corporate world to manage people, he said, but now he realized he was entitled to his life and his family more than 60-hour work weeks. He eventually found his way to Imerman Angels, where he is now chief operating officer.

“I am surrounded with beautiful people, it’s the reason I am working here. It’s a choice. Right now thanks to cancer I chose only nice things.”

The exterior pouch on his body never became his reality. Although Nunez lost weight, he has worked out and firmed up muscles to the point where he competed in the October 12 Chicago Marathon, which provides roughly one-third of the roughly $1 million Imerman Angels budget. He also mentors eight people across the United States and Mexico. All of them love travel, food and wine, going to the gym and running; two of them who were athletes have already registered to do triathlons and Nunez is considering going to California to cheer on one of them.

Since 1.6 million Americans are diagnosed with cancer every year, Nunez said his No. 1 priority is to let more people know about Imerman Angels. Within 24 hours of calling the center in Chicago, a patient receives a reassurance call back; prospective mentors also have 48 hours to respond, so the matchmaking process is usually completed within five days.

Imerman Angels staff ask the patient what they seek in a mentor. Generally it is type and stage of cancer, gender preference and age, but types of treatment, financial matters and fertility can also be a concern.

Outreach Coordinator Jackie Herigodt has visited hospitals in other states to attract more volunteer Mentor Angels, particularly among people who have benefitted from Imerman Angels services. Their enrollment awaits completion of a three-part video tutorial and quizzes.

Ramos met Imerman at a Quad Cities information event and in 2011 he started mentoring caregivers of women with breast cancer across the U.S.

“I don’t want anyone to experience those dark lonely days that I did. When you first get that initial diagnosis the world around you spins. I was thinking ‘Oh, my gosh. My wife is going to die. What do I do about weddings, about graduation.’ I felt like the fabric was tearing apart. I would reach out to grab it and something else tore.”

Ramos counsels male caregivers to take time off when they need it so they can be more effective upon their return. Most of all, he knows he provides hope, rare breast cancer tumors notwithstanding.

“My wife is living proof and as a caregiver I will help you get through this the best way I can.”

More information about the Chicago-based nonprofit is available at ImermanAngels.org and 877.274.5529.

By Suzanne Hanney, StreetWise Editor-in-Chief

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