We at Inspire are pleased to bring you the latest in a series of interviews with people making contributions to patients and caregivers worldwide. We are posting these interviews in a Q&A format as a news feature for members of all communities on Inspire.
Terminally ill with cervical cancer, Michele Baldwin became the first woman in history to paddleboard 700 miles down the Ganga River in India. Baldwin completed the journey, the Starry Ganga expedition, in the late fall of 2011 to raise awareness of the disease and funds for its treatment through the Global Initiative Against HPV and Cervical Cancer. Her friend, filmmaker, Nat Stone, accompanied Baldwin. While making scheduling stops along the Ganga River (sometimes known as the Ganges), Baldwin met with medical leaders in India. Baldwin, a Buddhist, chose India for her trip as India has the highest amount of deaths annually from cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is the second most deadly cancer among women worldwide, and is an especially serious problem in India, where it kills 74,000 women a year.
A mother of three, Baldwin, is a member of the National Cervical Cancer and HPV Coalition Support Community on Inspire. I spoke to her by phone at her New Mexico home, where she is now on hospice care.
Inspire: Because you decided to make this very public gesture, you are a symbol to many now with cervical cancer and with cancers of all types. Why do you think you have gotten this reception?
Baldwin: It means the world to me. I think I represent a part of what we as people have inside of us, and that is strength in the face of adversity. Many, many people are afraid to act on that strength for whatever reason. There’s a million and one excuses not to do the things we dream of, and many people are just unable to do those things. I wasn’t sure I could do this trip at all. I remember going for a long work in New Mexico and I could barely walk 100 yards. Yet I now hold the world’s record for paddleboarding for women. I doubled the next farthest distance so far. In the beginning in India, even on the plane over, I didn’t know any single day that I could do it. But I did.
Inspire: Was there a time during the trip when you knew you could complete it?
Baldwin: Yeah, it was about three days before Varanasi, the last city of the expedition, and I realized that I was going to do it, and I would have paddled the whole 700 miles and I really felt proud. It meant a lot to me. People don’t want to really talk about cervical cancer prevention but they will talk about an amazing deed. So, by having done this trip I can bring the conversation back to my favorite topic and ask if they’ve had a pap test this year, or have they considered Gardasil for their children. And by doing that, I save lives. What I did, in and of itself didn’t save my life, and it didn’t save anyone else’s life. But having it as a conversation starter, I’d like to think that I’m helping people live their best life by inspiring them, and I know so many women have gotten pap tests after hearing my story.
Inspire: From reading your blog and the interviews you’ve given, it’s clear that you’re funny. How has humor helped you in your illness?
Baldwin: All I can speak for is myself, and I’ve always had a sense of humor. One of my favorite my favorite jokes is, “What do you call a girl with multiple lymphomas?”
Baldwin: A lymphomanic! (laughs) I would say that on my way into surgery, and I would say it as often as I could around the hospital. I do know there have been many times when I’ve been in chemotherapy, or in surgery, and I’m telling jokes and I’m lightening the mood for everyone else, but I knew deep inside that I was really scared. And so, I check myself with that. I make sure that I’m not masking. I usually do say at some point, “I am scared,” and I think that’s important to do. The other day my son was looking at a little Mexican knickknack I had and I said, “Go ahead, take it, please,” and he said, “I can wait a month.” That little scoundrel! (laughs) So, I think when there are things people are afraid of and things people tiptoe around, then I head straight into it.
Inspire: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Baldwin: I’m very human. I don’t want anyone putting me up on any pedestal. I’m no different from anyone else in your communities who may read about me. I’ve come home now. I’m in a lot of pain. I’m in bed most of the time now, and I’m asking myself, “What am I going to do with this now, struggling with this new level of health?” I can’t paddleboard, I can’t snowboard, I can’t run, I can’t go to the gym. And so, I haven’t figured it out yet, what I’m going to do. But like I said, I’m going to go out with a bang, so I’m not going to go out laying here in bed, I don't think. I’ll figure something else out, and that’s the struggle we all have, is how to live our best with what we have.
Cervical Cancer Awareness month is January. To learn more, go to www.nccc-online.org and www.GIAHC.org.