It was a gut feeling that turned Roswell resident Karen Durrett's life upside down two years ago. After all, no one really expects that watching an afternoon talk show will uncover a deadly disease, reveal family secrets or get your story told on ABC’s “The View.”
And yet, that’s exactly what happened to local mom Durrett, now 52.
This two-year journey of self-discovery began with the 23andMe at-home DNA test she ordered after watching the program. The unexpected results warned her of cancer and exposed the fact that the man she had called dad for 50 years was not actually related to her.
“I was just going on a gut feeling that this test was something I should do,” she said.
The initial prompt began as a thought that DNA analysis might help determine the root of minor health problems she was experiencing.
“Both of my parents had health problems and I wanted to know my own risks,” said Durrett.
The decision to take the test seemed strange, if not downright ridiculous, to the few Durrett told.
“Even my husband was extremely skeptical,” she said.
The test came back and life went on.
But when unexplained relatives started popping up in the 23andMe system, Durrett decided to dig a little deeper. She asked her parents – who were no longer together at the time – to help her assess health risks by taking their own genetic tests.
However, the motive in asking for her parents to join her journey was twofold for Durrett. A lifetime of wondering why she didn’t look or act like her father’s side of the family was bubbling to the surface.
“I had this feeling my whole life,” she said. “For not a lot of money, I could find out once and for all.”
The test came back – the man she thought was her father wasn’t.
“I felt dispair, grief, anger and then peace,” said Durrett, at finding the results. “It was like I was able to validate everything I had ever felt.”
After coming to terms with the emotion of it all, her mother told her the story she had never told anyone before. It was the story of a 16-year-old girl who had left her small town to live the city life with an older boy for a few months before returning home to her childhood sweetheart and settling down with him.
“I didn’t really find out who I was until I was in my fifties,” said Durrett, who is married with three children of her own. “And by then, the truth didn’t wreck my world. I was very secure in my life, in my own family. It didn’t wreck my world, but it put a serious crack in it.”
Over the past two years, Durrett – who has maintained a relationship with the man she had thought was her father - has begun to fill that gap with new relationships. She found her 75-year-old biological father, Hugh Sheppard, living in Florida. She also met her 95-year-old grandmother, a half sister and half brother.
“I had always wondered where I had gotten certain traits and here they were looking back at me,” she said. “My grandmother played the guitar for me. Suddenly the musical talent of my daughters made sense.”
It was as if a puzzle she hadn’t known existed even five years ago was falling into place.
But the unique story doesn’t end there.
When 23andMe sent her an alert for cancer in her own genetic makeup last August, she didn’t take it lightly considering her newly found sister was in remission from stage four lymphoma.
A mammogram in October showed calcifications, but the radiologist told her to wait six months before getting a biopsy.
“He looked at me like I was crazy when I told him I didn’t want to wait,” she said. “He was very dismissive; telling me that insurance might not cover it. I told him, if that were the case, I would put it on the credit card. Either way, I was getting it done then.”
Durrett had been right to push. The biopsy came back positive for a fast replicating cancer inside her milk glands. Given six months, it would have spread beyond the glands into the breast tissue, said Durrett.
Two surgeries and 22 rounds of radiation later, Durrett finished with her treatment on March 17.
“I feel so blessed,” she said, on the chance she got to offensively fight her cancer, as well as get to know her new family.
She credits the ability to easily and inexpensively take the at-home genetics test with changing the course of her life and feels that others should have the same advantage.
“I feel inspired by my own story and I want to inspire others as well,” she said.
Soon she’ll inspire an entire nation.
Durrett was recently approached by ABC’s “The View” talk show to share her story, after a producer read her story in the iPad’s The Daily news app. She will fly to New York next week for taping on Wednesday, May 25. She has also been asked to appear in PBS’s Nova series, scheduled to come out next year.
But her journey doesn’t end here, said Durrett, who plans to write a book about her experiences.
“I’m still putting the puzzles of my life together,” she said. “Everyone has a story, some of us just don’t know it yet.”