From “baby steps” to a full marathon, Dana Lawson’s journey is just getting started.
The cancer survivor and East Coast native who now calls the Olympic Peninsula home is looking to inspire and help others as she prepares for her first 26.2-miler.
The goal, she said, is to raise awareness and support for Unbounded Horizons, a new outdoor healing program for domestic abuse survivors.
It’s what keeps her on her SideStix, the forearm crutches allow for Lawson — who lost most of her right leg to cancer in 1999 — to traverse the Olympic Peninsula in preparation for the Sequim-to-Port Angeles North Olympic Discovery Marathon.
“I feel when people see me doing these things,” Lawson said during an interview/training session on the ODT in late March. “They can’t help but be on my team and think, ‘If she can do this … ’ ”
While marathons can be solitary events, Lawson is hardly doing this alone. Friend Leilani Sundt, who with others helped Lawson get to cancer treatment appointments in Seattle in recent years, is training alongside her friend.
“I think we all draw inspiration from around us; she’s a major one,” Sundt said.
Lawson has a long background in environmental science. Growing up on the New Jersey shore, she said she earned her nickname “Buggy” — not, as it happens, from an interest in bugs.
“It came from the fact that I’m so inquisitive. ‘Why does the moss grow like that? Why does a tree look like that?’ ”
She started an environmental club in high school and then went on to earn a degree in environmental studies from Middlebury College, Vermont — one of the first institutions of higher education in the nation to establish an interdisciplinary environmental studies program, in 1965.
Lawson worked as a marine biologist and in various jobs around the water in Florida before developing Nature’s Academy, an educational nonprofit. The goal, she said, was to get youths, many of whom had growing up just miles from the beach but had never been there, into water-related activities in order to teach science outdoors.
Cancer plagued Lawson’s family for years, taking her mother (pancreatic) in her late 50s and her father (multiple myeloma) in his 70s. It plagued Lawson too, as she developed a rare desmois tumor in her leg. Only about 900 people in the U.S. are diagnosed each year, according to the Desmoid Tumor Research Foundation.
The tumor has stayed with her for 22 years, and while the tumor isn’t life-threatening her right leg had to be amputated above the knee.
She started in on a number of clinical trials to battle the cancer, first in Maryland and another that brought her to the Oregon coast. Lawson’s mobility declined to the point of using a wheelchair.
During some time spent at Harmony Hill Retreat Center along the Hood Canal, a fellow cancer survivor mentioned to Lawson the Olympic Peninsula might be for her, and she could continue treatments in Seattle.
When she saw the possibility of moving around the peninsula on the paved portions of the Olympic Discovery Trail, she was hooked.
“I was like, ‘These people have 100 miles of paved walkway for me and my wheelchair?’ ”
Lawson moved to the peninsula in 2017 and now resides between Sequim and Port Angeles.
While she managed to get around in her wheelchair — she completed a 5k in 2018 in it — Lawson said the device is very limiting. She moved on to aluminum crutches and then, through an amputee group on Facebook learned about SideStix.
Lawson said it took some time to get used to SideStix — devices with shock absorbers that she’s recently fitted with mountain bike handles — and that after weeks of “baby steps” she got used to them.
The SideStix give Lawson the ability to hike almost any trail she seeks out.
The tumor that is still wrapped around her leg makes sitting uncomfortable and a prosthetic unrealistic, she said.
“I suppose that’s why I’m always on the go,” Lawson said.
Lawson said she’s making some significant life changes, as a survivor of years of domestic abuse.
With the COVID pandemic shutting down much of what she was overseeing with Nature’s Academy back in Florida, she’s transitioning that business into Unbounded Horizons. With its initial clientele serving women, the 501(c)3 nonprofit looks to help people seeking to deal with trauma in their lives.
“One of the problems with trauma is, your compass can’t find north anymore,” Lawson said. “So many people get lost in that valley and can’t get out again.”
The name hearkens back to Nature’s Academy, she noted, as she’d have students stand shoulder-to-shoulder to glimpse an unbounded horizon and think of the possibilities.
It’s that them she wants to pass on to trauma survivors, too, through facilitated hikes, breathing/bodyawareness exercises, nature connection exercises, domestic abuse education, budgeting/financial education and a post-program “tool kit” (see unboundedhorizons.org).
The program “assists participants in developing more confidence, self-compassion, and self-worth” and “participants develop the ability to unlearn conditioned behaviors and beliefs, such as helplessness and shame.”
Lawson figures she’s as good an example as anyone for finding a path through life’s ordeals.
“I had to survive some serious trauma,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of experience learning how to pick myself up.”
She’s also an advocate for changes to legislation regarding domestic abuse, which she said she experienced first-hand doesn’t always provide safety for the abused.
“No wonder no one wants to talk about it. It’s a tough topic; it’s even more difficult to live through.”
But she’s also found that she doesn’t have to go it alone. Lawson said on some of her early hikes when she was still using a wheelchair, that, friends were more than happy to help her portage over roots and rocks for her to continue her journey.
“There’s a world of help out there; all you have to do is ask,” she aid.
“If (a trail) is not ADA-compliant, there will be 12 people there to lift you up and carry you.”
Sundt met Lawson while volunteering with Sequim Wheelers, a local group dedicated to giving people assisted bicycle rides, at a meet-and-greet at the Sequim Farmers and Artisans Market in 2018.
“She just fell in love with it,” Sundt recalled.
Recalled Lawson, “I put my hands in the air like a 10-year-old; it was just this major liberating moment.”
Lawson went on to join the group as a board member.
“She’s been invaluable for Sequim Wheelers (with) all that nonprofit experience,” Sundt said.
“She kept telling me about how she’d always wanted to run a marathon,” Sundt recalled.
Sundt, who completed a marathon in the mid-1980s, encouraged Lawson to face the challenge.
After some friendly debate, the pair agreed to sign up. So, on race day — Sunday, June 6 — Lawson and Sundt and other marathoners getting the early start will break from the starting line in Blyn at 6 a.m.
“Everybody’s got a different goal; I’m there to be supportive for her,” Sundt said.
“The marathon for me is just an outward metaphor, for the effort,” Lawson said.
“My finish line is the starting line.”
Tax-deductible donations to support Lawson’s run can be made via the Unbounded Horizons website (unboundedhorizons.org). Learn more about Lawson at dana-lawson.com.
Follow Lawson on social media @hoppyhikerpnw.