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A woman who has overcome cancer takes on another challenge

Nina Philipp has never walked a mountain trail. Not in the Poconos, not anywhere. "My idea of a hike is going from a rental in Ocean City to the beach," she said.

Nina Philipp has never walked a mountain trail. Not in the Poconos, not anywhere. "My idea of a hike is going from a rental in Ocean City to the beach," she said.

Let's be honest: Nina prefers dirty martinis to clean mountain air.

Yet, on Jan. 1, she will set out on a journey to climb one of the legendary peaks on Earth, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. She will ascend through five ecosystems to reach the summit at 19,000 feet. She will do this in seven days.

And she is terrified.

That is saying a lot. Nina, 47, of Feasterville, has endured eight cancer surgeries and three separate courses of radiation. Many of her facial bones are now made of titanium.

And through all this she raised two daughters, one with special needs, Michelle, now 28, whom she calls "my angel."

"People all tell me 'You've been through so much,' " Nina said the other evening, after a workout. "I'm more scared of this than anything. I'm most terrified of not making it to the top. Everyone keeps saying, 'No, just going there is great.' No. I don't want to just go there. I want to make it."

After Nina survived her first experience with cancer, at age 24, an adenocarcinoma of the salivary gland, she knew what she wanted to do with her life.

She was so amazed by and grateful to the radiation therapists that she went back to school to become one.

While she was in school, cancer returned. More surgery, radiation. She wanted to drop out. But her father, Vincent Marano, drove her to class every day.

"Get in the car," he would bark.

She completed school and has worked for 12 years as a radiation therapist at Abington Memorial Hospital.

"It's what I'm supposed to do," she said.

"I do a lot of hand-holding," she added, "and I'm the hugger. If you put your hand on someone's shoulder, you can sense if someone can use a hug. I don't say, 'I know what you're going through.' That's not right. I just say, 'I'm here if you need anybody.' "

In rare cases, when she feels that the patient needs a listener, someone who can relate, she will flip her hair back, show the scarring on her neck, and say, "If you need someone to talk to, let me know."

Brandon Fisher is a resident in radiation oncology at Drexel, and he's doing part of his residency at Abington. Fisher, 34, from Utah, an avid mountaineer, has founded Radiating Hope, which takes old radiation equipment (replaced in the United States every few years) to such places as Senegal, which have little or none.

This fall, he reached out to another nonprofit, Above and Beyond Cancer, which runs trips for cancer survivors to mountain summits.

"I think we need to fuse these two organizations," Fisher told them. "They said, 'OK, fine. We'll let you recruit a climber to the Kilimanjaro trip.' I knew Nina from working with her. I knew she'd be a perfect fit. They didn't want someone who can climb a mountain with no trouble.

"She survived a really tough cancer," Fisher said. "A lot of people just don't survive those. She's a perfect example of someone who's had to fight to survive, and this trip will be a continuation of that test of willpower."

He asked her in November:

"Nina, you want to go to Africa, climb Mount Kilimanjaro?"

"No way," she replied.

He convinced her.

"I climbed Kilimanjaro a year ago," he said. "They do all they can to get you up it. They'll help carry your gear. Help set up your tent. Kind of cook the food for her. You can do it if you have the right support. I think she'll make it to the top."

Nina's application was approved the day after Thanksgiving. She went home from work and joined a gym.

She has missed only three days since then.

"If I'm going to do this," she said, "I'm going to do this."

The other night, sweat soaked her Flyers T-shirt after an hour on the elliptical, StairMaster, and treadmill.

Her favorite machine?

"I don't like any of them," she said. "I like laying on the couch in my pajamas.

"It does feel really good when I'm done."

Her trip is being paid for by Above and Beyond Cancer, which gets support from the American Cancer Society and other groups, Fisher said.

Nina has raised more than $1,500 in pledges for Fisher's group, Radiating Hope.

The hardest part for Nina, who is divorced, will be leaving her daughters, Bonnie, 24, and particularly Michelle. Friends are convinced the reason Nina is still alive is to care for her daughter.

Michelle works part time at Wawa, washing windows, and she cleans walkers as a volunteer at Fox Chase Cancer Center, where her mother had all but one of her surgeries.

Michelle has no doubt her mother will hike to the top.

"She's such a survivor," Michelle said.