By Janet Prince
I know you have all seen the ads on TV for the Ancestry.com and 23&Me DNA kits, especially over the holidays. In 2017, I had some family members receive an Ancestry.com kit for Christmas. They took the test and sent off the vials in January 2018 hoping to learn more about their ancestry, where they came from, and when. When they received the results, they were surprised! A first cousin we had no idea about was a very strong match above all others throughout our family.
This is where my DNA story began, but before I go in to what we found, I want to share how I feel about DNA testing and why I feel that way. Keep in mind that everyone has their own opinion, and that must be respected.
As most of you know, I am a 16-year breast cancer survivor, and I lost my mother to ovarian cancer. Both of us were diagnosed in 2003 just five months apart. We met with a genetics counselor at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine in November 2003 and began building a genetic tree of our family members that had any type of cancer. We were able to determine that the cancer line came from my grandmother’s family where we found breast, brain, lung, cervical, and ovarian cancer. Taking this test was very important to both of us because of my two daughters. I have always been a believer in knowing your health history, and I especially wanted my girls to know theirs as they became young women. Since we did our testing, many new breast cancer genes have been identified, so I will be having an updated DNA test this spring.
My belief in DNA testing is very strong. By taking this DNA test, I was able to rest at ease knowing that neither my mother nor I carried the breast cancer genes BRCA1 or BRCA2. In addition, the results were something that my family members could use. They learned the history of aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins, and children that had all been diagnosed with a type of cancer. Everyone accepted the results of this test and never questioned if they were true.
Now knowing how I feel about DNA testing, I want to share the story of finding our new first cousin. When my family members received their results, someone was at the top of the list (meaning they are your strongest match) who they didn’t know and had never heard of. This person reached out to my family to see how they were related, and at first, my family members seemed thrilled to have a new cousin. When they called me with the news, they were excited to learn more and to hopefully meet her because as luck would have it, she has a step-sister who lives in the Upstate of South Carolina, and she was planning a trip there later in the spring. Since my mother died, I have been the keeper of the trunks that belonged to my uncle as well as one that belonged to my grandparents. Both trunks were filled with letters, postcards, and my uncle’s US Marine uniforms with all his medals. My family asked if they could go through the trunks to verify the connection between my uncle and her mother. I was more than happy to do this because I was curious to know the connection myself.
Last spring, our new cousin, Linda, traveled to South Carolina from Nevada, and I was so excited to meet her. Linda came and spent an afternoon with me, and we went through the trunks. We were elated when we found a note with her mother’s name and telephone number on it! It was the confirmation she had been looking for all her life trying to find out where she came from. She had found “home.” I knew when I opened the front door that Linda was a part of my family. We have the same cheeks, her mannerisms are much like my mother’s, and when I hugged her, it was like hugging my mother again. She is definitely a member of my family. After looking through the trunks, I took Linda to visit her father’s grave and was honored to share this moment with her.
While she was here, Gary and I had a cookout for my other family members to come and meet Linda and her “sister” Kathy (Linda has four step or half-sisters, but they only call themselves sisters not anything else). We had a wonderful time and even FaceTimed with another sister of hers who lives in Texas and loves genealogy. She started asking about other names on Linda’s tree that they didn’t know, and when she started calling out names of my great-aunts and second and third cousins in Alabama, it sealed in my heart that Linda was a member of my family. We hugged, cried, and laughed with joy. I look at Linda as a gift and another connection to my mother.
Unfortunately, only one of my cousins came to meet Linda that night, which broke my heart for her. Their once excitement had turned into not believing in the validity of the testing, and therefore not accepting Linda as part of the family.
Linda, who is my first cousin, was the daughter of an uncle I had who was killed in the Korean War in 1950 at the age of 21. Linda was born five months after his death. Because my family members chose not to believe the results, I took the Ancestry.com test in June. When my results came in, my family member who had originally taken the test were first, and Linda came up next followed by both of her children who are my second cousins. I was so excited to verify that Linda is a part of us.
Linda and I have hours-long phone conversations sharing what our lives have been like. Like me, Linda is a cancer survivor having been diagnosed with multiple-myeloma in November 2013. Linda’s mother was killed in a car accident when she was only 9 years old, and I have told her that I believe with all my heart that if my mother and father had known about her, they would have brought her here and raised her as their own.
I don’t know why God brought Linda into my life at this stage in my life, but I am just so thankful that He did. I was so happy to have Linda and Kathy attend Ashlan’s wedding, and seating them with the family was a great joy. This was the first big “family” event Linda had been able to be a part of, and I wanted her to know how special she was to me and my family. Knowing she was there brought much comfort to me, and I look forward to spending more time with her and getting to know all her sisters.
DNA matches can either bring big surprises or things you already knew about but with the deeper story. I encourage everyone to take the DNA test of their choice if nothing more than to know their family health history. Remember, this is information that can be passed down through the generations. Be prepared for secrets the test may uncover, and remember the person on the paper who you didn’t know about has feelings and deserves to be acknowledged. Whether you want to build a personal relationship with that person is up to you, but be mindful of your actions because they can hurt someone.