In celebration of Movember, the month-long global charity movement engaging men to grow moustaches during the month of November for the purpose of raising awareness and funds to benefit men's health, I'm proud to share one man's journey through -- and beyond -- testicular cancer.
"So, what's it like to only have one ball?"
Jonny Imerman has heard just about every imaginable question since his testicular cancer journey began in 2001.
"And, how exactly do you make a deposit when they tell you to 'bank' sperm?"
Heard that one about 239 times.
"Can you still be a dad?"
Great question. For some guys, the answer is "no." Imerman's optimistic. But he's focusing on getting married first.
The truth is, when Imerman was living his own cancer nightmare at the age of 26, he had no one to turn to with any of his questions.
Like many young men, Imerman's diagnosis came out of thin air. He had no symptoms and appeared to be a healthy, single 20-something-year-old juggling a job and working on his MBA, when he suddenly had a pain in his left testicle that made him drop to his knees.
"It felt like someone took a dagger and literally shish kebabed my nut," Imerman vividly recalls.
Initially misdiagnosed as an infection, he was put on antibiotics. But after two weeks he knew something was wrong, so he sought a second opinion. After a physical exam, blood tests and an ultrasound, he received the news: He had testicular cancer.
And he was immediately thrust into the world of the unknown.
Surgery -- just two days later -- revealed that the cancer had spread (metastasized) outside the testicle. Testicular cancer has a fairly predictable path of travel when it metastasizes: lymph nodes, then the pelvis, then the abdomen, next behind the kidneys, then the lungs, and finally the brain. Imerman's cancer had already spread to his lymph nodes, pelvis and lower abdomen.
"It was an incredibly isolating time for me," Imerman remembers. "My family was awesome, but I was also dealing with a ton of emotions that I couldn't exactly talk to my mom about."
His next course of action was five months of intense chemotherapy.
"I honestly didn't even know what chemo really was," Imerman admits. "I didn't know what to expect."
What Imerman quickly learned, during those ensuing months, was that every cancer patient didn't have the same support network he did.
"I had people with me every day," Imerman continued. "But I'd walk down the hall to go to the bathroom -- dragging my IV pole by my side -- and see people who were alone."
Those trips down the hall made a lasting impression on Imerman. And while he regularly would stop and talk with anyone he passed, he knew he wanted to do more.
"I made a silent promise to myself that if I ever got to the other side of this, I was going to figure out a way to help."
Getting to the other side proved to be a long journey.
One year after his chemotherapy ended, a routine CT scan revealed four tumors along his spine. A four-hour surgery was required, during which Imerman's internal organs were literally pulled out of his abdomen -- leaving him temporarily like a turkey carcass -- in order for the surgeon to remove the four tumors.
"It was a long couple of years," says Imerman. "But I made it."
He also remembered the promise he made to himself to help others who were going through the cancer journey and in 2003, he started Imerman Angels to provide one-on-one cancer support to anyone, anywhere in the world facing a cancer diagnosis.
"What we do is simple," Imerman explains. "We connect people dealing with cancer -- both patients and their caregivers -- with people who have gone through it. We'll find someone for anyone. Same cancer. Same sex, age and lifestyle. Someone who can say, 'I've walked in your shoes. I've been there. I beat it. And you can too.'"
It's a buddy support system.
But to those on the receiving end, it's hope.
Ask Jon Dwoskin, the first testicular patient Jonny Imerman himself was matched with.
"I was on top of the world," explains Dwoskin. "I was 30, newly married and about to start a family with my wife. I had it all."
Ironically, Dwoskin also had a feeling something was wrong with himself physically. He was actually reading Lance Armstrong's It's Not About the Bike, which chronicles Armstrong's own testicular cancer story. "I know this may sound crazy, but I just knew something wasn't right with me. While symptomless, I had a strong feeling that I had testicular cancer."
A physical with his own internist actually revealed a small lump on his right testicle, so his doctor sent him to a urologist. The prognosis from that next appointment was that it was "nothing" and Dwoskin was told to monitor it. Thirty days later, with no change in the lump but an even stronger belief that something was wrong, Dwoskin went back and insisted on an ultrasound.
"That was lesson number one in the importance of being your own advocate," Dwoskin said. The ultrasound confirmed that he had cancer.
And, like Jonny Imerman, he found himself two days later undergoing surgery to remove his cancerous testicle.
"My world turned upside down in a matter of days," said Dwoskin. "One week I was bulletproof.
The next I was dealing with issues of fertility, surgery, post-surgery treatments and the idea of death. My friends were all in their 30s. They had no idea what to say or do for me."
And then the two men were matched through Imerman Angels.
"The first time we talked was over the phone," recalls Imerman. "I think that phone call lasted four hours."
And that phone call repeated itself day after day until the two of them could actually meet face to face.
Two weeks after surgery, Dwoskin began a lengthy series of radiation treatments.
Dwoskin explains, "You name it. I had questions. I had questions about treatment. I had questions about recovery. I worried about sex. My marriage. My career. My emotions. The spectrum of issues was monumental. And I desperately needed someone to trust and talk with."
What ensued between those two men ultimately became the model for Imerman Angels. Two people matched up. One needing hope. One prepared -- and able -- to provide it.
"Jonny is one of my closest friends on this planet," states a now-in-remission Dwoskin. "I can't ever repay him."
In truth, Dwoskin repays by being an Imerman Angel, himself, for other young men facing testicular cancer. So far, he's been there for six young men -- providing them the same hope given to him by Imerman.
Today, Imerman Angels maintains the world's largest database of cancer survivors and caregivers.
"We've made more than 8,000 connections in over 60 countries," states Imerman. "Am I proud of that? Absolutely. But there are over 1.5 million people in our country who receive a cancer diagnosis every year. There's still so much to do."
The Imerman Angels journey continues. Matching two people -- like Jon and Jonny -- at a time.
(To learn more about Imerman Angels, visit their website.)
Testicular Cancer Facts
Testicular cancer is the number one cancer in guys ages 15-35 in our country -- impacting about 8,500 young men every year. It's nearly 100 percent curable if you detect it early. Here's three things you can do:
- Have a physical regularly. That means every one or two years. Talking about doing it doesn't count. Schedule an appointment.
- Know your nuts. Testicular cancer usually doesn't cause a noticeable pain. However, it often is initially detected by a change in your testicle. So, every month, in the shower, check both of the boys. Put one ball in the palm of each hand. Is one bigger? Do you feel a lump? Hardness? Heaviness? If you notice anything, go to a doc. For a free shower card with instructions on testicular self-exams, visit Single Jingles Testicular Cancer Awareness.
- Send this article to your brother or pals. You might just save their lives.
For more information on Movember, visit their website.
Jonny Imerman, founder of Imerman Angels, shows his support for Movember 2012!
Photo Courtesy of Jonny Imerman
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