Two years ago, Michele Baldwin was diagnosed with cervical cancer. After two surgeries, it metastisized and she was given 6 months to live. A fitness freak and practicing Buddhist, she packed up her paddle and headed for India.
"I went skydiving / I went Rocky Mountain climbing / I became the first person to paddleboard down the Ganges in India, spreading the word about cervical cancer, encouraging pap smears and increasing awareness about the HPV vaccine”?
Did I get those lyrics right?
Meet Michele Baldwin.
In July of 2011, this 45 year old mother of 3 was given 6 months – max – to live. It’s January 2012. Do the math.
How it happened.
Years ago, after making the decision to get her tubes tied, Michele stopped going to the gynecologist for checkups. She wasn’t going to have any more children. She practiced safe sex. She thought she was being smart. HPV didn't care what she thought.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted virus, several strands of which can cause cervical cancer.
Excuse me, female humans: NEVER let it go more than a year without telling someone to stick a speculum in your hoo-ha.
Here’s the thing. HPV can be dormant for years. It can be “passed through” your system without you ever knowing. Some forms have symptoms, some don’t. And just because you haven’t had sex in a year doesn’t give you a “get out of gyno free” card. Seriously.
Ladies – whether you're a mother or a daughter, a Bachmann or a Baldwin – underestimating HPV has devastating consequences.
When Michele received the news, she didn’t throw a pity party. She checked off the most bad-ass item on her bucket list. She packed up for India and paddleboarded down the Ganges, from the base of the Himalayas to Varanasi – 700 miles – spreading the word about HPV, raising funds, and setting the world record for the longest female paddleboarding trip.
Do you know how many people have HPV in the US?
According to the Center for Disease Control in 2011,
"Approximately 20 million Americans are currently infected with HPV. Another 6 million people become newly infected each year. HPV is so common that at least 50% of sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives."
One of those 20 million was me, 6 years ago. They caught it and they burned it off with liquid nitrogen. Freeze-drying my insides was a wonderful experience. And it may have saved my life.
And for all of those who think that STIs are for the sexually deviant: when I was infected, I was 19 years old. I had engaged in bouncy snuggles with a total of ONE person. A person who had ALSO had sex with one person - me.
In other words, I was a majorly dirty ho-bag.
What Michele has to say.
Michele's 45 years have been filled with fitness, and right up to the end, it improved her quality of life. Stand up paddleboarding and yoga brought her peace in a time of (often excruciating) pain.
I reached out to Michele to ask her about her journey and how fitness has affected her life. From her bed, she dictated her answers to her mother, who calls it her “penultimate interview.” Read, absorb, and then pick up the phone to schedule a pap.
How did fitness improve your life (before and after cancer?)
Before cancer, I loved hard, vigorous exercise at the gym. I was religious about going 2-3 times a week. One result: it weaned me off low-dose anti-depressants.
After each surgery (Michele had two surgeries to remove the cancer), I would have to start all over again, from the beginning. But I did it. In 2009 and 2010, before each surgery, I participated in a relay marathon with a team to bring awareness about the disease.
How did you feel on the Ganga? (Ganga is the Indian spelling for Ganges.)
For the first week on the Ganga, I was pain-free. Totally and completely. So much so that I marveled and wondered, "is this a miracle?" But it was just a brief reprieve. In the middle of the trip, the pain returned in the late afternoon and early evening, until I slept. And at the end of the trip, the last week, the pain was pretty constant, and I had to rely more on meds.
How does it feel, physically, to have cancer? And how does it feel to work out with cancer? Does it hurt? Does it soothe? Both?
My cervical cancer, now that it has metastasized, really hurts. It can be excruciating. And even when the pain is at bay, there is a feeling that can't be described. Cancer lets you know something isn't right, there is a dysfunction in your body. Now, it feels like utter internal chaos, even when the meds have blocked the pain. While I was on the river, however, the rhythm of paddle boarding was so soothing. All that good work on my core and abs blocked the pain messages to the brain.
You are a yoga lover. What style of yoga do you practice? When did you discover yoga?
I have been a practitioner of hatha yoga for quite some time. In 2006 I found a great yoga teacher here in Albuquerque and that's the only teacher I have really liked and have gone to him as much as I could. Tried hot yoga and other kinds, and didn't like them as much.
People make excuses every day for their inactivity. It hurts. I'm busy. My body can't handle the strain. You, with cancer eating your insides, were totally and remarkably excuse-free. How do we get rid of our excuses?
Shut up and do it!!! Then see how you feel. Better? Do it again. Worse? Try it one more time anyway.
Anything else you'd like to share with our readers?
I can't run now. Can't work out, can't paddleboard, can't swim, can barely walk. I miss all that so much. Please, please treat your own body first, and think of it as your holiest temple. It needs your care, your nurturing.