PADDLEBOARDING THE GANGA: Courageous Woman Completes Expedition in India for Awareness of Cervical Cancer
An American woman and mother of three who has terminal cervical cancer arrived in Varanasi, India November 19 after an adventurous and important mission: she has become the first woman to standup paddleboard down the Ganga River as a means of raising awareness of and money for the fight against cervical cancer.
Michele Baldwin, 45, of Albuquerque, New Mexico USA, arrived in Delhi October 18 and over the ensuing four weeks, paddleboarded down the Ganga from the base of the Himalayas in Rishikesh to the holy city of Varanasi, 700 miles or 1100 kilometers.
Her expedition is called the Starry Ganga. It was planned and put together quickly over the past two months after Baldwin’s metastatic cervical cancer returned for a third and final time after two earlier rounds of abdominal surgery and chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Her Starry Ganga expedition is in collaboration with the Global Initiative Against HPV and Cervical Cancer, GIAHC (www.giahc.org
), an American nonprofit organization working in India to help prevent cervical cancer. GIAHC was founded by physician and author Dr. Shobha Krishnan. Cervical cancer is the second most deadly cancer among women worldwide, and is an especially serious problem in India, where it kills 74,000 women a year and accounts for the highest number of deaths for women there.
“This Expedition is a selfless idea,” Dr. Krishnan says. “The river is sacred, and so are women’s lives. Michele’s dedication to the cause is remarkable, and we are grateful for her steadfastness to raise awareness about this disease. Her own achievement doing this first-time achievement will stand as a beacon for other women.”
Baldwin hopes through her expedition to raise $100,000 to support GIAHC and its efforts. The money will help the organization set up pilot programs for preventing cervical cancer in India.
Baldwin first traveled alone to and lived in India at the age of 19, where she met Mother Theresa and fell in love with the country and its varied cultures. She returned for an extended stay several years later. She has trained and worked as a nurse, midwife, doula, realtor, ski lift operator, white water rafting guide, kayak river guide, and most recently as a paramedic and emergency medical services technician, but only recently learned the sport of standup paddleboarding in southern California.
“It was August of 2011 when, two months after being told there was no longer any treatment available for my cervical cancer, I came up with the idea of paddleboarding the Ganga,” Baldwin says. “It came to me like a little secret whispered in my ear. It’s an original synthesis of pilgrimage, athletic challenge, and opportunity to raise awareness about the cancer I have, which kills 250,000 women a year worldwide. So it’s not so much as a want but something I feel I must do.”
“I paddled a 12½ foot custom inflatable paddleboard made and donated by ULI. When I got tired I occasionally sat on a foam yoga block, then used a short paddle, also there were extra tow rings put on my board so I could be towed while I briefly rested, stretched or did yoga. Nat Stone, the cameraman, navigator, waterman, accompanied me rowing a custom rigged sculling canoe. Nat has rowed, paddled, or sculled over 10,000 miles solo on different waterways, from the Mississippi to the Mekong in Laos. We made at least 25 miles a day most days paddling in two four-hour sessions, and sometimes three, making for long days. We carried our own food and supplies and camped most nights along the banks of the Ganga. Every three or four days we met up with our support crew traveling by minivan.
“As a lifelong Buddhist facing my own certain death in the near future, I wanted time to meditate quietly for hours a day while floating/paddling on the most sacred river in the world. Now I want to raise $100,000 for the Global Initiative Against HPV/Cervical Cancer. Finally, I want to inspire others to be fearless. Do your own dreams, reach further than you thought possible, help more than you imagine you are able.”
Baldwin wants to emphasize that cervical cancer can be prevented, with early detection through a simple Pap test. She hopes to get the message of cervical cancer awareness across to women and all people in India.
In a candid personal account posted on her starryganga.com website, Baldwin tells the story of how she failed to get a Pap test for ten years, for a variety of reasons including lack of medical insurance, and then failed to heed symptoms of a problem. This summer her cervical cancer, despite her previous surgeries and treatments, had advanced to where her oncological team at a major National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center (where Baldwin says she got “amazing, first-class care”), had to tell her no further treatments were possible.
She went back to working on the river. “It was there I noticed how hours could go by without one thought of cancer. I kept thinking how fun it would be to stand on the water, floating peacefully down the Rio Grande. Standup Paddling was about to change my life, again, as the idea for Starry Ganga came to me over the course of a few weeks.
In early October a PET exam showed her cancer spreading. “It will be a race to get on the water, paddle my heart out, and then raise the funds for GIAHC before I get too weak,” says Baldwin.
“No one should die of cervical cancer.”
Members of the public who wish to support Michele Baldwin’s journey can donate to the Global Initiative Against HPV and Cervical Cancer at www.giahc.org, Michele Baldwin Living Memorial. To learn more about Baldwin and her expedition, visit starryganga.com.