Death. It’s inevitable. At once painful and peaceful, but something with such permanence and finality it could leave one stunned in disbelief for months on end to know it was coming. For most, it’s difficult to foresee what they would do with their final days of life. But for Michele Baldwin (featured on SUPthemag.com and then Yahoo’s GrindTV blog in October), the choice was easy. Fighting stage 4 terminal cervical cancer– an entirely preventable disease– the 45-year-old mother of three decided to standup paddle 700 miles down the holy Ganges River. Hoping to raise awareness to prevent HPV and cervical cancer and raise $100k for the Global Initiative Against HPV And Cervical Cancer (GIAHC) (she’s still trying to raise that number), Michele paddled from northern India to the eastern city of Varanasi. Now, after completing her pilgrimage, Michele has returned home to New Mexico for her final days.
“I returned home the 26th [of November] and now…I’m dying,” Michele says. “Since I’ve come home, my health has been really bad and I’ve begun having hospice care here. I’m on a narcotics patch and am spending 20 hours-a-day in bed,” she added during a phone call this week.
Departing 35 miles north of Rishikesh, the so-called yoga capital of the world and gateway to the Himalayas, Michele paddled an average of 28 miles a day for 25 days. “Paddling the rapids near Rishikesh was so fun and there were waves, so I actually got to surf,” Michele said. “Waves were breaking in all different directions and the water was so clear,” she added.
Friend, gear handler, and personal towboat, Nat Stone, accompanied Michele, rowing alongside in a custom-rigged sculling canoe. “We usually started paddling around 8 a.m. and would paddle for about 4 hours. I would rest for an hour, floating and eating, then we would paddle together [with SUP attached to Nat’s canoe] if I was tired, or I’d paddle solo if I could,” she added. By paddling with her ULI SUP board attached to Nat’s sculling canoe, Michele was able to make better time, although she did have many 12- to 14-hour days on the river as her health declined.
“I felt the best when I was paddling. When I was paddling I wouldn’t feel pain, but after I would stop, the pain would come back and I didn’t have stronger medicine over there,” Michele explained. “I would just want to keep paddling, but wouldn’t have the energy…I think the entire last week in India I cried myself to sleep because of the pain,” she added.
From the rapids near Rishikesh, Michele paddled south to Haridwar, then to the Taj Mahal in Agra, where she stopped for a day to meet with local doctors and press at a women’s hospital. “We camped on white sandbars on the Ganga almost every night,” said Michele. “It was amazing falling to sleep to the sound of jackals and far-off ashrams playing holy music,” she explained.
From Agra, Michele continued on to Kanpur and Farrukabad, finally finishing in Varanasi, where she was honored in a blessing at the Dasashwamedh Ghat and received gifts from the Indian Medical Association. “The Indian kindness is amazing,” she said.
Upon completing her journey, Michele held a press conference in Varanasi before heading to New Delhi for another meeting with the press, both of which helped to raise money for GIAHC and awareness of HPV and cervical cancer within India, the country that faces the highest annual death tolls due to cervical cancer.
“My favorite part of the expedition was just being able to be on the river during the day and being next to the river at night, under the stars. Being able to paddle and swim in the river felt healing and I think if I hadn’t been paddling my health would’ve decreased even more quickly.”
As standup hasn’t become common in India yet, Michele was often the center of attention on the river. “People would ask me, ‘how could you do this?’ and it’s just a love of the river– you think like a Hindu. Every day on the river was certain; not like life with cancer. The Ganga accepts everything, life and death,” Michele explained. “Sometimes we would see corpses in the river and I couldn’t focus on proper Buddhist prayers because of the smell…you can’t not be affected [by death],” she said.
As Michele prepares herself for whatever may come after this life, she says she wants to live longer for the obvious reasons, like her three children, but also because of her love for standup paddling. “I’m so glad SUP is around- I want to live longer so I can standup paddle more. My trip was an amazing success and I’m happy to inspire others or help them to follow their dreams.”
Her final message is simple, a wish for all women to prevent themselves from fighting the painful battle she is slowly losing: “If you are moved by my story, go get a pap.” – Shari Coble