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December 27, 2011

A Woman Who Has Overcome Cancer Takes on Another Challenge

By Michael Vitez, Inquirer Staff Writer

While training for her trek up Mount
Kilimanjaro, Nina Philipp (left) gets a
high five from her daughter Michelle.
Nina, a radiation therapist, has
undergone eight cancer surgeries.
(CHARLES FOX / Inquirer Staff

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.

Eight Cancer Surgeries

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.

Lots of Hand-Holding

"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."

A New Challenge

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."

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