At age 26, Jonny Imerman said the last thing he was thinking about was his health.
Even after doubling over in pain one night when he was out with his friends, forced to hobble to his car in what he called the worst pain of his life, Imerman refused to accept help.
But when he arrived at the hospital that night, Imerman’s diagnosis changed his life.
“The doctor looks me in the eye, runs his hands through his hair and says, ‘I’m really sorry kid. You’re in your 20s. This is not what you were thinking, but you have cancer,’” Imerman said.
After surgery, chemotherapy and countless nights spent in the hospital, Imerman stood cancer-free on Friday before about 700 students to share his story at Northwestern’s annual Relay For Life event.
The event, lasting 12 hours from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., is held in an effort to raise funds and awareness for the American Cancer Society and symbolizes the life of a cancer patient, with the darkness marking the diagnosis and the fight and the sunrise symbolizing hope and the promise of recovery.
This year, participants surpassed their fundraising goal of $100,000, and that number continues to rise as several donations are still being counted, said Bridget Popovic, one of the event co-chairs.
During the opening ceremony, Imerman explained that after his experience with cancer, he knew it was his duty to spread awareness about the illness and volunteer to give hope to those who are in a time of need. He said more than anything, during his journey, he felt “terrified,” and he aims to address these feelings to help other patients.
“Much more important than my personal story with cancer is the duty of the cured,” Imerman said. “What can we, the survivors, do to change the system, make it better, to find a crack, to look at the system and say ‘here’s what’s missing, this could be better?’”
Imerman founded his own organization, called Imerman Angels. The team gives one-on-one cancer support to fighters, survivors and caregivers, through matching individuals who have gone through similar experiences together to work as mentors and supporters for each other. The organization was founded on the basis that no one should have to go through the experience alone.
Imerman ended his talk by explaining that time is everything and encouraging attendees to check for the illness and go to the doctor if they have any concerns. He then opened up the forum to questions from attendees. One individual asked whether he has seen patients who, after being diagnosed, immediately want to give up the fight and how he responds to this.
“People do start that way, that they don’t even want to fight sometimes because they’re so scared,” Imerman said. “Our job is to get in there and prove to them that there’s hope.”
At the end of the ceremony, caregivers were thanked for the impact they make in the life of a cancer patient and, along with survivors, were asked to walk the first lap around the track. As they walked, participants cheered them on before all attendees walked a lap together to start off the relay.
Throughout the night, participants walked around the track and participated in several organized activities. Programming included performances from multiple student groups, including BLAST and Graffiti, a hypnotist show, a yoga session and karaoke.
Prior to the event, several profit shares were organized with local Evanston businesses, including World of Beer and Envy, to further fundraising efforts in addition to fundraisers put on at the actual event.
Popovic said one of the biggest changes this year was moving the Luminaria Ceremony outdoors.
“It creates a very unique atmosphere, having it outdoors, in the dark and just being able to see every individual bag lit,” she said. “(It) just makes everything that much more special.”
Weinberg freshman Jourdan Dorrell, a member of Relay’s survivorship committee, said her team was responsible for organizing the ceremony and the survivor reception. Dorrell, along with other students, made a speech during this year’s ceremony. Every attendee was also given a glowstick, all of which were lit by the end of the ceremony. These elements were added to make the event more personal and were meant to demonstrate visually that everyone has been affected by cancer in some way, even if indirectly, Dorrell said.
Dorrell said she had a personal connection with the cause and was touched by the ceremony. She said she, along with many other participants, dropped their glowstick in the bag they made to commemorate a loved one lost to the disease and to honor those currently fighting.
“I did it because I’m like, ‘I want to make my dad’s brighter,’ so I just dropped my glowstick in there and a lot of people did that. And I thought that was cool to see that everyone was looking to honor theirs and take that silence and find their bag and light it a bit brighter,” she said.
She said Relay For Life has a more personal element and brings the community together while supporting a cause that affects so many people.
“I just liked having my friends there and experiencing that knowing that they were there for me,” Dorrell said. “I think it’s just a nice community building moment at Northwestern.”
At the end of the event, the teams who raised the most funds included the men’s basketball team, followed by the combined team of Pi Beta Phi and Phi Delta Theta, the team of Phi Mu Alpha and Sigma Alpha Iota and the team of Alpha Chi Omega and Sigma Nu.
Popovic said the event represented an important part of her life, noting she became involved in Relay after losing her father to cancer and watching her mother suffer with the disease. She said she believes a cure to cancer can be found soon if individuals continue to fundraise and support research.
“Hopefully one day people won’t have to go through what I did and lose their parent to cancer, have a parent who’s still undergoing cancer treatments or have a loved one or any other friend going through the disease,” she said. “A world without cancer would be fantastic.”