Terminally ill Michele Baldwin of the US has embarked on a 700-mile journey across the Ganga to create cancer awareness
Tribune News Service
New Delhi, November 3
“When I am moving across the Ganges, I am pain-free,” says Michele Baldwin, a US woman in terminal stages of cervical cancer, who is in India on a mission to raise awareness about the disease that kills 74,000 women every year at home.
She arrived on October 18 to become the first woman to paddleboard 700 miles along the Ganges and raise funds to promote cervical cancer prevention in India where the malady kills most women worldwide. She says it would be her last big journey, and she wants to make it count.
“No one should die of cervical cancer,” 45-year-old Baldwin told The Tribune today while on her Varanasi-bound journey that commenced from Rishikesh. She calls the expedition “Starry Ganga” and planned it two months ago after her metastatic cervical cancer returned for a third time following earlier rounds
of abdominal surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
“I see this idea as an opportunity to raise awareness about the cancer I have and which kills 2,50,000 women a year worldwide. It’s not so much a want but something I feel I must do,” Baldwin, a single mother of three, says.
Asked why she chose the Ganges for the mission, the New Mexico resident replies, “I first came to India when I was 19 and worked with Mother Teresa. I fell in love with its culture. This time, the Ganges called me back. It gives me peace. The only time I am not in pain is when I am paddling here.”
Baldwin wants to raise one lakh dollars for a global initiative against the human papillomavirus (HPV) infection and for cervical cancer screening by a US-based body in India.
Shobha Krishnan, founder of the initiative, said, “I cautioned Michele on her weak immune system, but nothing seems to cast her away. She swam in the river the day she began the mission. She even got a water-proof dress, a kind of a conservative outfit that makes her look more Indian than most Indians.”
Also trained as a nurse, Baldwin has been paddling a 12.5-foot custom inflatable board weighing 30 pounds. The board has a ‘yoga’ block where she rests and meditates when she gets tired.
Accompanying Baldwin is Nat Stone, cameraman-navigator, who has rowed, paddled, or sculled 10,000 miles solo from the Mississippi to the Mekong in Laos.
“We are paddling 25 miles a day in two four-hour sessions and carrying our own food and supplies. At night, we camp along the river banks,” she says.
Some donation has already come though Baldwin has not had the time to keep an account of it. “We will count the funds we’ve raised when we are done with the journey,” she says.
Baldwin, a Buddhist, also got river boots for her mission after someone told her the Ganges had several species of snakes.
“She said the boots would keep her safe,” Krishnan adds while Baldwin recounts how she failed to get a Pap test done for 10 years and then missed out on noticing the symptoms of cancer. This summer, her condition had advanced to where her doctors told her no further treatment was possible. So she went back to her tryst with the river.
“I noticed here how hours would go by without one thought of cancer. That’s how the idea of Starry Ganga came,” Baldwin says.