Photo by Johnny Jackson Henry County Schools Superintendent Ethan Hildreth sits with his wife of 22 years, Crystal, who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer.
McDONOUGH — Crystal Hildreth imagined everything in her world was falling away. But suddenly she realized those things all came to surround her when she needed them most.
Hildreth, 45, remembers waking up suddenly one night. She said she lifted her arm out of her bed covers and above her head without thinking. She used the other hand to cuff her breast and she found it there in dark silence — a lump.
She took the discovery to her doctor in February. She was diagnosed by phone with Brca2 breast cancer, a cancer stemming from a genetic mutation known to increase one’s risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers.
“It wasn’t what we were hoping for when we got that call,” said Hildreth.
She is an active wife and mother of five, ages 8 to 20. She and her husband, Henry County Schools Superintendent Ethan Hildreth, adopted the youngest a few years ago.
Hildreth said she had been training for a half marathon before life suddenly slowed down around her.
“I was shocked,” Hildreth said. “I’d thought I’d done everything to prevent getting cancer.”
It had been more than a year since her last self-exam. She said she never had a mammogram before because of a childhood experience. She saw her father’s sister suffer and lose her battle with breast and ovarian cancer and she steered away from suffering the same fate.
“Because of that I thought, ‘Lord, if I ever feel a lump I will have an exam,’” she said. “I believe the holy spirit let me know I had it. That’s why I woke up and felt that lump that night.”
Hildreth’s father is a 9-year cancer survivor. She said she is determined to be one as well.
She went through six rounds of chemotherapy and is scheduled to start radiation in October. She underwent a double mastectomy and plans to undergo reconstructive surgery in May.
“I feel like the cancer is gone,” she said.
Hildreth said the ill-effects of her chemotherapy hit her about every third day. It also affected her family and friends who seemed to rally around her during those low points.
She said her children have been active participants in her recovery. Her oldest child, Kemble, returned home from college after two years away and is now commuting into the city from home to help provide support to his mother. Her mother, too, has moved to be closer to her.
Hildreth said she is able to spend more time with her mother. It is time she said she could not have imagined years ago.
“But it’s just been beautiful,” she said.
Hildreth continues to operate The Hildreth Center, a tutoring and enrichment service she created at 79 Lawrenceville St. just down the way from her home.
“I wasn’t going to let cancer keep me from teaching,” said Hildreth, a former Henry County Schools teacher. “I felt like I was about to be a part of something bigger.”
Hildreth said the past several months she has relied on the support of her husband of 22 years.
“Ethan has been my rock,” said Hildreth.
Hildreth, who has known her husband 35 years, said he helped get her out of her “pity party” those days when she was not feeling emotionally well.
“There were some days I couldn’t stop crying,” she said. “I was processing the losses and that was tough.”
Her husband said credits the community with supporting them through the first half of their battle against cancer this summer. The couple called it their “Summer of Love.”
“The outreach of friends and family has been amazing,” said Ethan Hildreth. “Community support has been amazing, it’s immeasurable.”
His wife regards that support as her teachable moment.
“It’s taught me that everybody’s doing a little helps out a whole lot,” she said. “It all adds up with what everyone else is doing. It’s taught me to just do.”
Hildreth acknowledged that she, too, has been an example for others. She demonstrated this in prayer with members of Eagle’s Landing First Baptist Church.
“My main prayer is that I’ll be a good example for my children,” she said.
“Through all of this she has been a joyful inspiration,” her husband interjected.
Hildreth said the process has been “really hard on my youngest one.” She said the adopted daughter, Lee, is still overcoming abandonment issues and often wrings her hands together in worry for Hildreth.
Hildreth said the child developed the habit as a coping mechanism to deal with moving from one temporary home to another before being adopted by the Hildreths.
“It broke my heart,” Hildreth said. “I couldn’t hide those hard days. But I didn’t want to see her suffer or worry that she was going to lose her mother.”
Hildreth said she feels empowered with each day that passes. She attends a support group called Harbor of Hope and often speaks with people in a broad network of cancer survivors she did not know existed.
She said she decided to take her scarf off while eating lunch with her two oldest sons at a local restaurant in September. It was the first time she went without it since last spring. She lost her hair after a second round of chemotherapy. It is starting to grow back.
“I feel like I’m living more in the moment,” Hildreth said. “I’m more peaceful. It really is going to help me to not be afraid to help someone else going through this.”