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Survivor Plans Climb Up Denali

December 17, 2011

Chris and Nikki Milonas, left, will be climbing Mount McKinley (Denali) in Alaska next summer to raise money for breast cancer research. They are getting some support from Nikki’s aunt and uncle, Cheryl and Tom Hart, who own Hart's Jewelers in downtown Grants Pass.

(Reprinted with permission from the Daily Courier, Grants Pass, Oregon.)

By Kathleen Alaks
of the Daily Courier

Nikki Milonas is going to great heights to help fight cancer.

A five-year survivor of breast cancer, the 41-year-old former Grants Pass resident and her husband Chris are part of a team of six people planning to climb Denali (Alaska’s Mount McKinley) next summer to raise money for breast cancer research.

At 20,320 feet, Denali is North America’s highest peak and one of the world’s coldest. The climb is scheduled June 12 through July 2.

“We’re climbers and mountaineers,” says Nikki, who lives with Chris in Seattle, Wash. “We’ve climbed peaks in Nepal, the Himalayas in Patagonia, Chile and Argentina and we’ve done a lot of climbs and hikes around Mount Rainier.”

Nikki’s dedication to the cause was fueled years before her own personal cancer battle. In 2002, her grandmother Mary Ann Hart was diagnosed with breast cancer. Hart and her husband Thomas founded Hart Jewelers in downtown Grants Pass.

“I worked at the store all through high school,” recalls Nikki. “I was the first grandchild. She and I were really close, we were good friends.”

Her grandmother went through chemotherapy and radiation treatments. In 2004, the cancer came back in her bones and lungs.

“It was very painful watching her die,” Nikki says. “But my awareness of breast cancer was raised by going through it.”

Hart died in August 2005. In October that same year, Nikki felt a lump in her own breast. She was 35. After a series of mammograms and a needle biopsy, she was told she had breast cancer.

Chris and I started dating two weeks before I was diagnosed,” Nikki says. “But he stood by me through it all. I went through chemo and radiation I lost all my hair. It was a pretty traumatic experience.”

“She was an animal all the way through it,” Chris says. “And now she wants, we want, to do something to give back.”

The Climb to Fight Breast Cancer is organized by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where Nikki received her treatment. Chris and Nikki signed an agreement to raise $12,500 each.

“That was our commitment. It’s very intimidating but it’s been very positive,” Nikki says.

Since they started fundraising in January, they’ve raised $26,400, but even though they’ve surpassed their goal, they continue to solicit donations. All the money they raise will go to fund cancer research. The costs of gear and transportation for the expedition they’ll pay for themselves.

“We’re doing this for all the people who have had breast cancer and passed on,” says Chris, “for all the women like Nikki who have gone through it and survived.”

“And for future generations,” Nikki adds.

Though they are avid outdoors people, a climb of this magnitude takes a lot of training, says Nikki, who has started working out on a stair-step climber wearing a 30-pound weight vest.

“We’ll each be carrying a 50-pound pack and pulling a 30-pound sled. It’s going to be a lot of work,” says Nikki. “But I feel fortunate to still be climbing, to still be alive.”

Reach reporter Kathleen Alaks at 541-474-3815 or kalaks@thedailycourier.com.

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