Karen Durrett never expected a little spit would lead her to a father she never knew or help save her life.
“I feel so blessed,” said the self-described “hippie mom” of three. “I had the chance to truly find out about my own origins and about who I am.”
In the process, the 52 year-old mother of three and grandmother of one, found a little inner peace and believes she dodged a cancer bullet.
Karen (seen on the left with her half-sister) first shared her story more than a year ago with the 23andMe Community, posting messages to fellow customers and asking for advice. But her story was picked up by The Daily and ABC’s The View as well as a local edition of Patch.com.
It all started with a personal genetics test by 23andMe.
What she learned wasn’t easy to absorb at first.
“It was emotional, at the same time it was a relief,” said Karen, a vivacious blond living in Roswell, Georgia. “In my inner soul, a part of me always knew I had clan out there somewhere.”
In late 2009 after she saw an episode of Oprah about personal genetic testing, she read Bryan Sykes’s book, “The Seven Daughters of Eve.” The book explains genetics and human evolution in simple terms. The show and the book and connecting herself to human history fascinated Karen.
But beyond the allure of the science, Karen said questions about her own origins bubbled to the surface after she sent a sample of spit to 23andMe for testing.
Since she was a little girl, Karen had a sense that she didn’t belong.
“I even told my mother when I was 5 years-old that I had a memory of my real father and she always dismissed it,” Karen said.
When her 23andMe test turned up a 3rd and 4th cousin she’d never heard of before, Karen contacted them. Using a paper trail the cousins found common family names, but none of them were names Karen recognized. Through a series of steps she had enough information to believe her long-held suspicions were well grounded. She again confronted her mother. In an emotional moment for both women, her mother told her the secret she’d kept hidden for 51 years — another man, Karen had never heard of before, was her real father.
“It was painful, but it was also a relief,” Karen said.
And after the initial shock, discomfort and emotion, she said she felt a sense of peace come over her. After getting a name from her mother Karen spent two months searching for her real father.
“I didn’t know if he was dead or alive,” she said.
She found her biological father, a retired civil servant and former musician, living alone in Florida.
The two bonded. She’s met a half sister she never knew she had and her grandmother.
Suddenly certain things about her life made more sense. The estrangement she had with her father, some of her mother’s issues and the uncanny musical talent her children had.
She made the connection with her half-sister, who was battling cancer, just after getting an update from 23andMe about her own elevated risk for breast cancer. When she went in for her annual physical, her doctor noticed something on the mammogram, but thought it was likely some calcification.
“He wanted me to come back in six months,” Karen said. Instead she insisted on a biopsy. “I said it doesn’t matter if I have to pay for it.”
A biopsy found she had cancer in the milk ducts in one of her breasts. She went through two lumpectomies and 33 rounds of radiation.
“If I’d waited it would have gone into the tissue,” she said. “That’s my reality, my truth.”
And her experience has pushed her to tell her story.
“I wanted to share my news with others,” Karen said. “There are a lot of people who have fascinating DNA stories and they just don’t know it yet.”
What’s your story? If you’re willing to share, we want to hear. Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.