The clichés of cancer are all about the fight, but conflict isn’t anything Michele Baldwin, who is 45 and a Buddhist, cares to spend her time on. She’s more interested in dying well and leaving a legacy for her three children.
How do you die well, and what can you leave behind?
For Baldwin, it involves meditating on a sacred river and telling her own difficult story.
More on the river later.
When Baldwin got the news in late June that her cervical cancer had spread to her lymph nodes and that there would be no more surgeries or chemotherapy or radiation, she realized she was going to die young of a disease that is now almost entirely preventable and treatable.
Cervical cancer was once the biggest killer of American women. That changed with the Pap test, a simple lab screening that detects cervical cancer in its early stages, as well as abnormalities that can lead to the cancer and can be treated before the cancer develops.
It’s now a routine part of a woman’s health care and often part of an annual physical.
Baldwin, like most American women, had annual Pap tests while she was in her 20s and early 30s. After her third child was born, she had her tubes tied and stopped seeing her Ob-Gyn.
She went 10 years without a Pap test, twice making appointments, then canceling them because of the expense (she wasn’t insured) and the hassle.
“I knew I needed to and I didn’t,” Baldwin tells me.
She sought medical help when she began to hemorrhage. By then, the cancer had taken hold and her karma was expiring.
This is where we and rest of the world enter Baldwin’s story.
“There are plenty of things to die from,” Baldwin tells me to explain the legacy-building portion of her end days. “We don’t have to die from cervical cancer.”
If you’re the parent of a child 9 to 17, make sure your child gets the three-stage vaccine against the human papillomavirus, the cause of nearly all cervical cancers. (It is most effective before a child is sexually active.) If you’re under 26 and didn’t get vaccinated as a child, doctors recommend you do it now.
Despite controversy, the Federal Drug Administration calls the HPV vaccine safe and effective. It’s as close as anyone has gotten to the miracle that cancer researchers hope for – a vaccine that can prevent a deadly cancer.
And now to meditating and that river.
Baldwin is a bright-eyed adventurer with the type of dogged spirit that had her hitting moguls in Crested Butte during the third week of her course of radiation and running in the Duke City Marathon days after surgery to remove her tumors.
When she considered her own certain death, she was drawn to water and to the sacred Ganga River in India (known outside India as the Ganges). Baldwin works as a river guide, and she recently took up paddleboarding, a sport that involves standing on a surfboard of sorts while floating on an ocean or river.
She has found that the gentle sway of paddleboarding eases the physical pain of cancer and that it’s a great mental cleanser.
“When I’m on the water,” Baldwin told me, “I don’t even think of the fact that I have cancer.”
She has put together an ambitious five-week paddleboard adventure down the Ganga, from its icy headwaters near the Himalayas to Varanasi, the spiritual heart of the river, 700 miles downstream.
Baldwin leaves on Oct. 17 and hopes her excursion will draw attention and inspire donations to the Global Initiative Against HPV and Cervical Cancer, which works to reduce the quarter of a million deaths from cervical cancer worldwide each year.
While the number of cervical cancer diagnoses and deaths are dwindling in the U.S., it remains a huge health threat to women in developing countries.
Baldwin laughed when she told me she has been advised by just about everyone involved in her medical care that spending a month on her feet every day in a dirty river is a bad idea.
For her, it’s not only a good idea; it’s the only idea.
“I intend to spend a lot of time meditating on the river,” Baldwin told me. “People die the way they live, and I want to die with grace.”