Angels in Disguise: A Story of Friendship, Resilience, and Beating the Odds
Five years ago, Jennifer Morrice was lying on her bed in disbelief. The day before, she was diagnosed with stage three lung cancer at the age of 45. She never smoked, and she experienced a clean bill of health for the majority of her life. Still reeling from her diagnosis, she struggled to process her new reality. Morrice knew she would need guidance and support to make it through the battle that lay ahead. That day, she made several phone calls to support organizations, hoping to find someone to talk to. After listening to a chorus of automated answering machines, she gathered the courage to make one more call. She dialed the number for Imerman Angels and a friendly voice greeted her. Within hours she was paired with a mentor and her journey with the organization began.
Imerman Angels was created in 2003 by Johnny Imerman. Imerman was diagnosed with testicular cancer at the age of 26. As he began his battle with the disease, he longed for the support of someone who shared a similar experience. The vision for Imerman Angels was to ensure that anyone who received a cancer diagnosis could have access to a vast cancer support network filled with people who knew what it felt like to battle the disease. Fourteen years later, Imerman Angels has paired more than 27,000 people with mentors in every state, and over 100 countries.
Through their unique matching process, Imerman Angels partners anyone regardless of age, gender, location, or cancer type seeking support with someone just like them – a “Mentor Angel.” A Mentor Angel is a cancer survivor or caregiver who has faced the same type of cancer. The service is free and is available for anyone.
“For the first time throughout this process, I felt like I broke through and I had a different type of support, other than the kind my family and my colleagues and everybody can provide me,” Morrice shared. “That’s when they matched me with Heather Von St James. She introduced herself to me and like almost immediately her response was so quick. Right away there was something special between the two of us.”
Von St. James was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma, a rare but aggressive form of lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure at the age of 36. She’d just given birth to her daughter when she was told she had just 15 months to live by her doctor. She began her battle with the disease, undergoing invasive surgery to remove one of her lungs, and multiple sessions of chemo and radiation therapy. Fourteen years later, Von St. James is one of the most recognizable advocates for mesothelioma research and awareness.
“You know, I was up every day at like four in the morning, like wide awake and I would crave Rice Chex for some reason,” Morrice said. “I knew Heather was on a different time zone, so instead of popping her a text of course I would email. Always within like 30 minutes, sometimes faster, like lightning speed, Heather always responded and had all the answers to my questions.”
The pair became extremely close during Morrice’s battle with lung cancer. As they relied on one another for support and encouragement, they discovered they had a great deal in common. They both underwent surgery and experienced nearly identical radiation and chemotherapy treatments. Their children were nearly the same age as well. Their friendship grew to exist outside of the traditional boundaries of the mentorship program, and it’s a friendship they still share today.
“You have to keep personal boundaries, it’s somewhat of a professional relationship,” Morrice said. “She [Von St. James] was like, ‘We’re gonna have to write these rules because we were just so connected.’ We were kindred spirits meant to find each other and we’re still very close.”
The relationship that Morrice and Von St. James share represents the hope that Johnny Imerman had when he created Imerman Angels. Over the years, the organization has expanded beyond the mentorship program, to include volunteerism, event hosting, blogging, and charity work. Stephanie Lieber, the executive director of Imerman Angels, is grateful for the Imerman Angels network and acknowledges that every division is integral to the success of the organization.
“I always like to say we have a special corner of the cancer community because what we do is so unique and there really isn’t anyone like us in this peer to peer world,” Liber shared. “And so it allows us to complement any other cancer organization and provide a resource to any other cancer organization that they don’t have, so it’s sort of a value add for so many.”
Five years after her initial diagnosis and subsequent surgery, Morrice is cancer free. She serves on the board of the American Lung Association Bay Area chapter, and mentors cancer patients as well. She’s continued her 20 year career in the health, fitness, and wellness industry and is surrounded by love from her husband, children, family, and friends. Morrice plans to become a Mentor Angel in the future so that she can offer others the same experience Von St. James offered her.
For Lieber, this is the focus of Imerman Angels. Through experiences like Morrice’s, Imerman Angels proves that it’s an organization dedicated to improving the lives of those who are affected by cancer. By supporting cancer patients and caregivers, Imerman Angels offers hope, comfort, and understanding to its mentees.
“…I hope that being able to serve as a mentor and a resource for someone else gives them [Mentor Angels] comfort and helps them heal, and helps them understand how resilient they are,” Liber shared.
To learn more about Imerman Angels, please visit their website at https://imermanangels.org/