I was adopted as an infant, so there’s a lot I don’t know about my genetic medical history. I was in touch with my birthmother via letters for a brief time, 10 years ago or so, so I do know a couple of things about her medical history – she had breast cancer – but nothing more current.
I know my birth parents’ names and being a genealogist, I have traced back those family lines as far as I can. So I also know the cause of death of immediate relatives on both sides, but nothing more than that medically – just what killed them. I did a DNA test several years ago, but that doesn’t tell me much beyond what ethnicity I am. The upshot is that I don’t know what specifically lurks in my genes; what I should be watching out for medically as I age.
So I’m proactive about regular doctor visits and screening tests. Doctors always ask me about my family history, and I have to tell them beyond my mother’s breast cancer, I don’t really know. This is frustrating to them and to me, but that’s just the way it is. I’m lucky I know my bparents names. (That’s a story for another time.) There are so many adoptees who don’t have the first clue about their genes, and what might be hiding in there waiting to pounce.
Today I went to the skin doc for the first time. I have a million freckles and almost as many moles – lovely Scots-Irish skin. They, of course, asked me about my family medical history, and I told them I was adopted and didn’t know much. The young woman who was giving me the once-over, paused as she was looking at my back, and said, “I know you don’t know your birthmother, but I can tell you that her back looks exactly like yours.”
It threw me for a minute. What a thing to say! So I said, “Why?” and she said that most of the moles on my back were genetic, that in fact, a predisposition to a certain type of mole and just being mole-y in general is a genetic trait. I didn’t know that, did you? I had never really thought about it, actually.
On my way home I thought I should have asked her how she knew it was my bmother’s back I got and not my bfather’s, but I think she’s probably right about which parent passed down that gene. I have a picture of my bfather and he has really nice smooth, non-freckled skin.
I got his crappy eyesight and allergies, but the skin was all hers, apparently. I have pictures of her, too, and while my facial features and blue eyes are my bfather’s, it’s clear to me as I get older that with those exceptions, my genes are trying to turn me into my bmother – a short fat woman with whiter-than-white freckled/mole-covered skin. Lucky me.
So in addition to the other gifts heredity has given me – high blood pressure and high cholesterol, a higher risk of breast cancer, as well as the aforementioned crappy eyesight and allergies; thanks gang – now I get to worry about melanoma, too. Yikes!
Well, we all got something from our folks, right? It could have been a lot worse. I’m not complaining. I have been spared plenty of other really horrible hand-me-down stuff. What does bug me is that I don’t know my own genetic/medical history. That’s just ridiculous. We know now how profoundly we are shaped by our DNA, and it’s just not right that adoptees don’t always have access to that information. Pretty barbaric in this day and age, if you ask me.
Well, you didn’t ask me, but there it is. Most people who don’t have an adoptee in their lives don’t know that for a long period of time, and still in some cases today, original records were sealed at the time of the adoption, and most adoptees don’t have access to information about their birth parents or their medical history.
The idea was that the child was to be considered part of a new family, her “past” erased, as though she just sprouted one day fully formed, in the arms of her adoptive mother and father. Not only was she given the family name, but she was to take on all the family characteristics, too. My house is your house, my history is your history.
For lots of reasons (another time) that was just a stupid idea that has caused untold heartache around adoption for decades, but the most ridiculous notion was that genetics wouldn’t matter and that the child would never need to know what kinds of diseases ran in his/her birth family. Cuz here’s what they failed to consider: that child would not always be a child! Just as in the storybook this practice was modeled after, the child was to grow up and live happily ever after, no problem, see ya, good luck!
Of course this wasn’t a story. This was a human being, with a real life and real feelings and real concerns about health, and what genes he/she would be passing on to her own children. Did anyone consider that before they tied everything up in that pretty pink and blue bow?
Nope. Oh well.
For the record, I’m not anti-adoption, or bitter about my experience or on a crusade of any kind. Being an adoptee is just one small part of who I am. Adoption was and is a small detail of my life. I’m grateful to be here; the logistics of my arrival are water under the bridge. Every once in a while, though, like today, it pops up and kicks me good, and reminds me that I can’t take some things for granted. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it makes me more vigilant and I’m better off because of it.
Maybe. Maybe not. Either way it still bugs me.