My family’s generations of abandonment struck me when I was pregnant with my daughter, sitting in my doctor’s office. There were so many forms to fill out; questions about things I was responsible for (sexual history, smoking, drugs or alcohol use, whether I was taking my prenatal vitamins) and things for which I wasn’t responsible... Such as my family history.
Did I have a record of genetic problems, diseases and conditions? I wasn’t entirely sure. My maternal grandmother had fought and beaten ovarian cancer in her early 50s and is still around today at 85. The rest? I didn’t know. My biological father had abandoned me aged 11, before he was too old for many heredity problems to set in and I had not heard from him since. I’d read about both my paternal grandparents’ deaths in the obituary column of the local newspaper but no details were given as to how or why they died. My mother never knew her father and, when my maternal grandmother was a child, her mother did a runner during the Second World War, never to return. So, more than 50 per cent of my health history was missing.
Realising how these blanks could affect my unborn daughter set me thinking; I’d always thought the damage brought on by my father’s abandonment was purely psychological (deep-rooted insecurity based on the thought that if my own father didn’t want me, why would anyone else?).
But suddenly I was being reminded that blood is thicker than water when, after years of shrilling that this was not the case (thanks to a kind step-father and a legion of girlfriends-come-sisters), I saw not only my future but the more emotional, visceral, primal hopes for my daughter’s future tied up in my genes. Over coffee with my friend Alexander, who was approaching his 40th birthday at a speed he didn’t like, we discussed how both parenthood and ageing brought up questions about our past – and perhaps more importantly, our futures.
“I’m adopted and it’s never bothered me before,” he said. “My folks took me in as a tiny baby and have loved me ever since. I’ve never felt the need to trace the people who didn’t want me, or couldn’t cope. I felt neither resentment, nor longing. But recently I’ve wanted to know what I was made of. That’s normal, isn’t it? To need to know what time bombs are waiting for us?” He’d found a DNA test on the internet that involved nothing more than posting off a saliva sample.
My friend had found out surprising information about his ethnic origin, as well as useful information about his heightened risk of diabetes, which he said was invaluable. I decided to follow suit, posting off saliva samples from both my husband and me six weeks before my due date. I knew facts and figures couldn’t heal the psychological wounds that had been inflicted on me as a child, or those inflicted on my mother, or her mother before her. But I hoped that, like my friend Al, I’d gain power through knowledge about where I came from. My mother, who also had missing family information, egged me on too.
For $99 (Dh363) and a simple saliva sample, who wouldn’t want access to data that could help prevent something ghastly?
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How does it work?
DNA is extracted from the saliva sample, then a technology called genotyping is used to probe for approximately one million locations across the individual’s genome. This provides the raw genetic data the company uses to provide all the health and ancestry reports. It can also show if you have any famous relatives thanks to certain portions of the human genome that are passed from parent to child without mutation over time.
Looking at these pieces of DNA enables you to track your ancestry back through thousands of years. For example, the mitochondrial DNA is inherited directly from mother to child – this allows you to trace your mother’s, mother’s, mother’s line going back through time. So if another individual has the same mitochondrial DNA, or maternal hapologroup that you do, then you have a shared ancestor somewhere in your past. And that ancestor could potentially have lived hundreds, or thousands, of years ago.
The celebrity relative element is the fun part. It’s the part I focused on while anxiously waiting for my results to be sent back to me (I was hoping for Cleopatra and Elvis, my dream dinner-party guests). I guess the anxiety was because I was nervous of what I would find. So, even though I felt empowered at having made the decision to find out, I was fearful about what would be revealed. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, every type of cancer... My risks would be there in black and white. I was scared.
My husband tried to be his nonchalant, confident self but I knew it must have been getting to him when a usual domestic chat about the weekly shop turned into a rather morbid, deep conversation about whether we’d remarry or live with someone again if one of us died. And we’d asked for this! Had we effectively signed our own death warrants?
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The truth arrives
Bizarrely, the first set of results pinged into my email inbox four hours after I gave birth to our daughter, Matilda May, at a time when I was in that intoxicating but exhausting state of new motherhood. I resisted the temptation to read it at first – not wanting bad news, as there was sure to be in some form or another, on such a happy day. But by 4am, in pain and unable to sleep in the buzzing, plastic bed I was anchored to with my husband and child snoring in unison a few feet away, I braved my future, which was more valuable to me now, as a mother, than it had ever been.
The cancer gene that had nearly taken my grandmother when she was 50 (I’m 38) screamed at me from the top of the page as an elevated risk – I was 8.6 per cent likely to get lung cancer, the average is 6.2; the type 2 diabetes that had plagued her life from her late 50s onwards was second on the page. I had a 30 per cent chance of developing it, whereas the average risk is 20.7 per cent. Gout was next on the list, an uncomfortable complaint that my younger brother had been diagnosed with only a week earlier. At 12.5 per cent, I had nearly double the chance of developing it than the usual person.
If I could beat these though – type 2 diabetes and gout can be controlled through diet and exercise – the prognosis was good. I was in a small group whose genetic make-up made the chance of living to over 100 a great possibility. From imagining myself in the gloom of chemo, I had an image of being at Matilda’s daughter’s wedding. I was also in the lucky group of people for whom caffeine had multiple benefits and zero negatives. This tallied with my experience of feeling perkier, but never jittery, after a java injection. With a newborn, coffee would be my lifeline. Most importantly the BRCA gene used to predict the increased risk of getting ovarian cancer didn’t show up, alleviating my worries.
Thankfully for Matilda’s future, my husband’s results were even better than mine. Miraculously he had no elevated risks and he was happy to read he wouldn’t go bald. Yes, even male pattern baldness is covered. So many interesting things are revealed in this test: your chance of early menopause, your eye colour, if you’re lactose intolerant – even how strongly you detect bad smells and whether you have a tendency to overeat (I do, apparently, which scientifically explains how I can eat a tub of Häagen-Dazs in one sitting).
Royalty versus cavemen
Three days later, as the milk that would nurture my child rushed into my breasts and I started to make plans for life together post-hospital room, my ancestry report arrived detailing through my mother’s line where I came from and what I had kept from my father when he left my mother.
It wasn’t a shock to discover I was 99.7 per cent Northern European - primarily British and Swedish - as my mousy hair and ruddy complexion has attested since the day I was born. Rather more excitingly, a link between my mother and the Duke of Edinburgh revealed Matilda is related to the UK royal family's Prince George and Princess Charlotte. I’m also related to Marie-Antoinette and Napoleon Bonaparte. I’d always put my bossiness down to being a Leo, but perhaps it was actually due to my feisty French ancestors.
Russ was most envious as he has no celebrity ancestors. Just (as predicted by me) the caveman element. I’m an average 2.7 per cent Neanderthal. Russ’s test revealed he is 3.3, which places him in the 99th percentile. This explains his obsession with BBQ meat, leopard-print boxers and his man cave.
The prehistoric percentage is worked out by comparing modern human genomes with the Neanderthal genome to determine what percentage of your own DNA is still Neanderthal. Scientists had originally thought that humans and Neanderthals didn’t cohabit. But, through DNA evidence, we now know that modern humans and Neanderthals did in fact live together and have children. As a result, most people of European or Asian ancestry have some Neanderthal in them.
Despite the worry I had waiting for the results to come in, I’m so glad I took the test. The blanks of my past have been somewhat filled in; the holes made by my absentee father completed by science. Emotionally, I’m still lacking the love and security that comes from having been raised in the traditional, loving two-parent home, surrounded by cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents from both sides. But now, at least, the past and my familial trauma cannot hold me to ransom and I can feel positive and excited about the future – for me and my daughter.
For more information on how to take the test, international shipping and results counselling go to www.23andMe.com
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