What you don’t know can’t hurt you


…except that it really can.

So I started writing this blog post a few weeks ago, right after we made contact with my mom’s biological family. I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to type up and share and whatnot, so I’ve edited this post a few times and ignored and wrote a shorter post with the basics of the encounter and posted that instead, with the intention of coming back to this one someday.


As I explained the other day, my mom was adopted when she was 3 months old. She grew up knowing she was adopted and I grew up knowing she was adopted. Her whole life has been filled with “I don’t know”s and “This doesn’t apply to me”s in regards to family medical history forms and that experiment kids do in high school where they write down the eye colors of every family member so they can discuss dominant and recessive genes.

My grandparents gave my mom a wonderful life. She grew up a happy child. She’s been curious about her biological family, but could never bring herself to look for them. I remember in high school being very curious about it and the two of us sat down and we filled out all the paperwork necessary for her to request contact with her birth parents. It’s been sitting in a drawer since 2004. She couldn’t muster the emotional or mental strength to mail it in.

I remained curious throughout high school and college, but never really pushed my mom to look for her birth relatives. It wasn’t my place. My oldest brother, Nicholas, was probably even more curious than I. He actually had genetic testing done at one point to figure out our ancestry on my mom’s side.

After one particularly long conversation about the adoption and the possibility of finding my mom’s birth family, she told me she didn’t think she’d ever be able to look for them simply because of the mental and emotional energy it would take. I asked her if she would be upset if I looked for them and she said no.

She didn’t actually think I’d look.

Lucky for me, Wisconsin State Law allows for offspring of adoptees to request a copy of the original adoption record. The catch is that they remove all identifying information such as names, locations and birth dates. They leave in birth years, but they remove months and days. So in the last few days of February, I filled out and sent in my application, expecting it to take a few months. I didn’t tell my mom and I was planning to read the adoption record and, in a way, screen it to see if there was any information that I thought might be too much for her to handle. I figured I’d get it just in time for Mother’s Day and I was going to wrap it for her as a gift.

Three weeks later, I received her adoption record. I read it immediately and after deciding there was nothing she would be unable to handle, I took the envelope and walked up to my mom. She looked at me and I held the packet out to her. I said, “I have something for you and if you don’t want to read it, that’s fine, you don’t have to. But I think you might want to read it.” She asked me what it was and I replied, “It’s your adoption record.”

She immediately took the packet to the living room and settled into a chair to read the 28 pages that chronicled the first year of her life. After she finished reading it, she said to me, “I need to look for them” and so continued our journey. She sent in her application for contact with her birth mother and we, again, expected it to take quite awhile for anything to happen simply because the Department of Children and Families then has to contact the birth mother and wait for a response, etc. However, our caseworker called two days after we mailed the application in. My mom’s birth mother was deceased. She died in 1981 at the age of 50.

In most cases, this would be a dead-end. Wisconsin State Law allows for adult adoptees to look for birth parents (in my mom’s case, she could only legally search for her birth mother because paternity was never legally established) and that’s really about it. Biological siblings may not look for each other. When the parent(s) is/are deceased, they cannot give permission for the release of information, so it’s the end of the line.

But not in our case.

As I said, my mom’s birth mother died in 1981 at the age of 50. She died from Ovarian Cancer. Due to her young age and the cause of death, our caseworker felt strongly that we petition the court so that we could receive contact information for my mom’s siblings (the adoption record listed three older siblings – two girls and a boy) so that we could get an updated medical history. Our caseworker said she would take care of filing the paperwork and she was fairly certain it would be approved, but it usually takes three to four weeks.

Fast-forward 8 days and my mom gets a call. The court order was granted and we had a name. We had lots of names. We had her mother’s name, the name my mom was given at birth, her older sisters’ names, her (potential) father’s name. All we had to do was contact one of them. My mom chose her older sister, Sally. She just had a feeling that she would be the right one to contact. She called and left a message on her answering machine on Friday, May 4 at around 5:30 p.m. and at 8:08 p.m. her phone rang. Sally had received her message.

Turns out Sally and their older sister, Judy, knew that my mom existed. A few years ago, their father (my mom’s potential father) told Judy and Judy told Sally. My mom and Aunt Sally (Weird!) talked for about an hour-and-a-half that Friday evening. I even got to talk to Sally for about 10 minutes! Sally was very open and warm and welcoming. This was the reception my mom thought would never happen.

Unfortunately, it’s not all good. As I said, my grandmother died from Ovarian Cancer. We also learned that Judy has had breast cancer twice. Both Judy and Sally decided a few years ago to have genetic testing done for the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 gene mutation, which research shows is a genetic link for “female cancers” (ovarian, breast, uterine). Judy tested positive, meaning she has the mutation, and Sally tested negative. My mom and I are both getting tested soon. We think my mom will be negative since she is 7 years older than both her mother and sister when they were diagnosed, but we won’t know until we have the test done.

I’m not going to lie, it makes me a little anxious to think about. My maternal grandmother died from Ovarian Cancer. My maternal aunt has had breast cancer twice. My paternal grandmother had 3 separate cancers (meaning they did not metastasize from one to the next). She had lymphoma, uterine cancer and colon cancer. My paternal aunt has had uterine cancer. The big question here is the uterine, breast, and ovarian – that’s 3 separate cancers that are believed to have some link in common (they’re all “female cancers” as I mentioned). A family history is not a guarantee, but it’s also not a good sign.

I suppose we’ll just have to get the testing done and see what it says. I’d never really thought about the possibility of Ovarian Cancer or Breast Cancer simply because there was never a family history (that I knew of). Does this new knowledge change all of that? I don’t know. It certainly makes me worry a little more.

I’ve done a lot more reading lately (probably more than most people should) about various cancers and genetics. As I said, a family history isn’t a guarantee, as only 10% of cancers are genetically-linked while 90% are sporadic. However, the fact that we had no idea of the family history is a little scary. We’ll just have to wait and see, but for now, I’m trying to stay optimistic and enjoy getting to know my new family members 🙂

(By the way – my mom looks JUST like her mom. It’s weird to see her look like someone else! Might post a picture sometime if she’ll let me…)


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