There was no hope.
Michele Lenore Frazier Baldwin, 45, was told that. Cervical cancer had returned, leaching into her lymph nodes, oblivious to the two rounds of chemotherapy and radiation and the surgeries she had endured that had brought her only a little more time and a lot more pain.
This time, all those times she should have done something proactively – like having a Pap test, which might have detected the abnormal, deadly cells multiplying inside her – felt like haunting, humbling hindsight.
This time, nothing more could be done.
“It was,” her mother said, “a death sentence.”
But this is where Baldwin, adventurous Albuquerque mother of three, made a choice not to whine or to rage but to reach for a legacy, a purpose for her death that might save the lives of others.
Because Baldwin knew that when all hope is gone, it’s time to go out and make more.
And so she did.
The death sentence she received in June 2011 became the journey of a lifetime that October, a 25-day, 700-mile trip by paddleboard down the sacred Ganges River, known as the Ganga River in India, a place that had transformed her as a 19-year-old wanderer and brought her to the spiritual clarity of Buddhism.
Her goal for her journey, from the churning headwaters near the Himalayas to the holy city of Varanasi, was to accomplish something amazing, something that would draw attention to a cancer that was so easily preventable.
“This is reality,” she said then. “And all I can do is make my dying change that for others.”
And so she did, her journey heavily covered by the Indian press. A preview of her journey was also covered by one of my colleagues in a previous UpFront column.
Baldwin’s dying came 10 weeks after she returned home to Albuquerque. Next Friday will mark the fourth year since her passing.
But her journey goes on in the documentaries “Paddling the Ganges” and “Lady Ganga,” the nickname bestowed on Baldwin by the people of India during her journey. The shorter version of “Lady Ganga” (a full-length documentary is due out this summer) will be featured Thursday at the United Nations as part of World Cancer Day. It is also part of the continued efforts of Every Woman Every Child, a U.N. initiative focused on putting an end to health challenges faced by women, children and adolescents around the world.
Baldwin’s journey also goes on in the words of her mother, Ruth Frazier, who will be at the U.N. next week along with her husband, Ken, and two of Baldwin’s children.
“Michele’s passion is now my passion,” she tells me.
So we talk about their journey and about the need to make every woman’s journey safer.
We talk about how cervical cancer had once been the No. 1 killer of women but that with the introduction in the 1940s of the Pap test, a simple screening, the death rates from cervical cancer have decreased.
Baldwin, she said, had been fairly good in earlier years about obtaining the test, a routine part of a woman’s health care these days. But after three children and with a busy, active life, Baldwin had let a decade pass without the Pap.
When she started hemorrhaging, it was too late.
“Michele was often asked if she ever thought, ‘Why me?’ and she would say, ‘Are you kidding? I know precisely why me,’ ” Frazier said.
We talk about the prevalence of the human papillomavirus, or HPV, passed from one person to another during sex that causes almost all cases of cervical cancer – how for most people the virus comes and goes unnoticed but how sometimes it lingers and festers and blows up into malignancy, sometimes many years later. An HPV vaccine is recommended now for girls and boys before they become sexually active.
We talk about Baldwin – whom her mother described as bold, courageous and filled with kick-ass determination – about her “wild idea” to paddleboard down the Ganges, 10 to 12 hours a day through morning mists and heavy afternoon air, past acres of sugar cane fields, small villages with curious onlookers, herds of deer and water buffalo and elk and alongside rare pink river dolphins leaping ahead of her.
The rhythm of the waters eased the pain that burned through her body, eased the pain that burned in her mind.
“She needed to do this, to leave this legacy, to be the voice of the voiceless, as she liked to say,” said Frazier, who followed her daughter from the road. “But I would be dishonest if I didn’t say we were hoping the Ganga would give us a miracle.”
In a way, it had.
It could not keep Baldwin from dying, but it could help carry her there with a deeper sense of acceptance, equanimity and resolve.
“It became very clear to me that I’d been completely healed,” Baldwin says in the “Lady Ganga” video. “That healing, though, is not incompatible with death.”
So Frazier continues the journey without her daughter in the flesh but always in spirit, always with kick-ass determination, always with hope.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
About cervical cancer
An estimated 12,000 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed in the United States each year, with higher rates among black and Hispanic women. About 4,000 women die of cervical cancer annually, more than 250,000 internationally. Almost all cervical cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus, or HPV, a common virus passed during sex that can develop as cancer years later.
Cervical cancer has decreased in the past 40 years largely because of women undergoing regular Pap tests and children receiving the HPV vaccine.
When to vaccinate: Both girls and boys ages 11-12 and 13-26 for those who did not receive the shots when younger.
When to have Pap test: Every three years for women 21-65.
SOURCES: Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention, American Cancer Society
Documentary: Short version featuring Michele Frazier Baldwin’s journey down the Ganga River: LadyGanga.org.
Blog: Baldwin’s journey: starryganga.com
United Nations global initiative to decrease rates of cervical cancer: everywomaneverychild.org