A woman with terminal cervical cancer set out on a record-setting trip down the Ganges River in India to raise awareness about the disease.
During the summer of 2011, Michele Baldwin’s cervical cancer returned in an aggressive, untreatable form. The 44-year-old New Mexican had first been diagnosed with the disease in 2009 and had undergone 2 surgeries and 2 rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, but now there was nothing more to be done. Her doctor told her she had 6 months to live.
Baldwin was initially so shaken by her prognosis that she didn’t even tell her family. Then she hatched a plan. An avid canoeist, kayaker, and raft guide, she resolved to travel to India and paddle 700 miles down the sacred Ganges River while standing on a surfboard. Her standup paddling trip would be part Buddhist pilgrimage, part athletic challenge, and part opportunity to raise awareness about cervical cancer, which kills at least 74,000 women per year in India. After 6 weeks’ planning, Baldwin and a filmmaker friend set off on the journey, hoping to raise $100,000 for the Global Initiative Against HPV and Cervical Cancer.
Along with 12- to 14-hour days on the river, Baldwin spoke with many people she met about the ease of detecting cervical cancer, presenting herself as a cautionary example. “I went 10 years without getting a Pap test,” she said in a YouTube video (see below) produced by Merck Pharmaceuticals. “That was my biggest mistake.” In a press conference in India, Baldwin said, “I am here for the women who are voiceless. This disease needs a face and a voice, and I wanted to be the person to bring the subject up in a very public way.”
In the Merck video, Baldwin’s 12-year-old daughter Audrey explains how her mother’s illness has inspired her to raise awareness of cervical cancer among her peers: “I’ll sit down with my friends at lunch and say, ‘Hey, has your mom gotten her Pap? Ask your mom if she’s gotten her Pap.’ And they’ll say, ‘What’s a Pap?’ And I’ll say, ‘Just ask her if she’s gotten it.’”
Baldwin’s mother, Ruth Frazier, has also joined her daughter’s campaign to ensure that others take steps to detect cervical cancer early when treatment is generally successful. “There has never been a pity party on her part,” Frazier says in the Merck video. “There has never been, ‘Why me?’ She knows why me—no Pap test for 10 years. … There is a heightened conviction on my part that it doesn’t need to happen to anybody else’s daughters.”
On November 24, 2011, Baldwin completed her trip down the Ganges, setting the women’s long-distance paddleboarding record. She died peacefully 10 weeks later, surrounded by friends and family in her Albuquerque, New Mexico, home. At the 2012 Standup Paddle Magazine Awards, Baldwin was posthumously given the award for top expedition. Her mother accepted it on her behalf.
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