Personal Genomics 101

 Karen Durret - 23 and Me customer

Finding Dad and Dodging a Bullet

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 she believes she dodged a cancer bullet.

Karen first shared her story more than a year ago with the 23andMe Community, posting messages to fellow customers and asking for advice. The Daily and ABC's The View picked up her story.

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 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.

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.

The two bonded. She's met a half sister she never knew she had and her grandmother.

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."


Steve Tsuida - 23 and Me customer 

What Makes Steve Tick

As a kid Steve Tsuida took everything apart. He wanted to see what was inside.

23andMe gave him a chance to do the same thing, but this time he got to peek inside his own DNA.

"It was affordable, and it sounded fun," said Steve, a 39 year-old graphic designer from Calgary.

So he sent away for the kit. When the results were ready he began diving into his data on the 23andMe website.

"The surprise is the depth of how much information there is," said Steve.

Although his own ancestry - half-Japanese and half-Welsh - is an interesting melange, it's not what drew him to take a test. Tsuida was simply curious. He'd heard a story on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation about personal genetics companies and thought it'd be cool.

He followed some of the threads related to his ancestry. He found it interesting, in part, because his own parents didn't talk much about family history. But again that isn't what drew him in.

"I have to say, in addition to the sheer novelty of looking at your own DNA, I found the results extremely useful," said Steve.

He was nervous at first.

"I mean I tend to catastrophize things, and I thought 'what if I messed up,' you know, ate some salmon the night before and contaminated the sample," he said.

That fear quickly drifted away when he began combing through his data. He was fascinated by how some of the associations appeared to dovetail with what he knew about himself.

"Many of the associations meshed with my behavioral traits," Steve said.

The artist compares his brain to a Bugs Bunny cartoon-rocket. A problem is like a fuse that burns until it hits a combustible mix of ideas in his head, he said. At ignition his rocket brain blasts enough ideas that a new creative breakthrough emerges, and boom "we all go to Mars."

His 23andMe results showed that he had a higher risk for Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. That made sense to him. He found other associations. He talked to his doctor about those and how they could be associated with other behavioral traits he had. Since getting his results in early 2011, Steve said they've helped put certain parts of his life in context. He can go to his doctor and talk about specifics.

"The neat thing is you're able to say, 'here's a suspicion' and it's not just something bubbling up in the pop culture but you can show them the raw data," he said.


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