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Elevation Gain: Climbing for the Cure

Have you ever come across someone’s life story, and it instantly sucked you in?  Someone you don’t know, yet they have already made an impact on your life? The positivity and strength that was radiating from ONE single Facebook post by Dana Lawson sucked me in. I wanted to know her. I wanted her attitude, grace, and peace.  The way she views the world and the beauty she sees in it has inspired me.

For 21 years, Dana Lawson has been fighting a rare form of cancer. She was training for her first marathon, at 26 years of age, and discovered a lump on her calf. It took almost two years for her to get a diagnosis. It was a Desmoid Tumor Sarcoma, which is exceptionally rare. 1-2 people per million are diagnosed with this cancer yearly. Because of the rarity of Desmoid Tumor Sarcoma, they are self-proclaimed “Unicorns.”

In that moment, in that lake, there was no cancer, no fear, no worries.

Dana Lawson

Lawson was unaware of how long this battle would be, but it hasn’t stopped her from enjoying her life to the fullest.  Over time, she made the tough decision to preserve her quality of life and opted to get an above-the-knee amputation. Dana had a prosthetic blade for a few years. Still, her cancer spread to her hip and pelvis in 2017, making it very uncomfortable to wear. She currently uses her wheelchair or Sidestix to get around.

Throughout her journey with cancer, Dana’s never given up on her passion for hiking. For the past three years, she has attempted the arduous hike to Lake Angeles near Port Angeles, Washington.

According to, the difficult-rated Lake Angeles Trail is 6.4 miles roundtrip featuring an elevation gain of 2,437 feet. The trail is best hiked after the snow has melted, between June and October.

That elevation gain is tough for a lot of people. Honestly, I hesitate to attempt trails with that amount of elevation gain. Comparatively, that is more than half the distance to summit Mt. St. Helens with an elevation gain of 4,468 feet.  Two years in a row, Dana fell short and had to turn around early. But this year, SHE MADE IT!

Dana said she arrived at the lake, sat down on a log, and cried.  She finally did it! 

“I came out of that lake and down that mountain a different woman,” Dana remarked on her accomplishment. “After so much personal trauma, nearly dying, my broken marriage, the chemo, cancer, the amputation, the loss, the pain, the agony- I made it.  In that moment, in that lake, there was no cancer, no fear, no worries.”

Dana donned her magical unicorn hat and hopped into the lake for a swim commemorating her achievement.

September is Desmoid Tumor Awareness Month. Each year the Desmoid Tumor Research Foundation hosts its largest fundraiser–a Unicorn Party in Philadelphia. The highlight of the event is their annual 5k. Patients, family members, and friends all participate in camaraderie, education, and soul-filling fun. 

Due to COVID 19, the event was canceled this year. Lawson was not going to let that stop her from participating and raising money for research and finding the cure.

She knew that she wanted to keep the 5k theme going, but wasn’t sure how exactly she would do that. She wanted to challenge herself, though, so decided that she would complete a 5k in elevation gained. From mid-July to Sept 27th, she has vowed to hike 16,404 feet in elevation gain. Her monetary goal is to raise $16,404 to represent each foot of elevation gained.

At this time, Lawson has hiked over 17 miles with just over 6,000 feet of elevation gained. She has hiked Mt. Zion, Lake Angeles Trail, and Buck Knoll. All while using her Sidestix and supportive friends to keep her company.

She is currently enrolled in a “First in Human” clinical trial at UW Medicine. In two years, she will do 66 chemo treatments. At the time of this article, she has completed 58 rounds of chemo. With three months left of this trial, she is more motivated than ever to raise money and awareness for the Desmoid Tumor Research Foundation.

“I wanted to show you that I am willing to do my part. Not only to show up every week for chemo so we can find the cure, but also show up each day on the trail.  Increasing my total elevation gained, advocating for my community, raising my perspective, and climbing for the cure. Please help me reach the summit of 16,404 and donate today!”

Dana, thank you for being so raw and real.  I appreciate your positivity and your never-ending drive to succeed. I hope you not only meet but exceed your goal. I hope that a cure is found and that you will summit every mountain you dream of.

Now I want to put on a teal ribbon in support of the Desmoid Tumor Research Foundation and hike to the teal waters of Lake Angeles.

You can follow Dana’s continuing inspirational story here on Facebook or Instagram. You can also help Dana and others who are bravely facing Desmoid Tumor Sarcoma by donating here.


Written by Heather Dembeck

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Photographing Birds with My Daughter at Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually