Tag Archives: Medical History

Medical History: Adoptees Fill in the Blanks

Every time we turn around, we hear about the importance of family medical history. Yet for adoptees, these facts are missing or at best incomplete.

A couple of recent  situations reminded me how little I know about my family medical history.

Leafing through Better Homes and Gardens on the subway, an article about heart disease caught my eye.

“When it comes to heart disease, what runs in your family matters—a lot,” the article began. “Studies show that if one of your parents had a heart attack or stroke, your own risk for these conditions can double, and having a brother or sister with the disease ups your chances of having a heart attack, too.”

I turned the page. Another article suggested talking to relatives about diseases that run in the family and then telling your doctor, who can use the information to recommend lifestyle  changes or screenings. “So grab a pen and paper and start interviewing Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, and everyone in between,” the article said.

Yeah, right. Like I can pick up the phone and get the scoop on family health conditions just like that. The writer is obviously not adopted.

On another day, sitting in an office in Manhattan, my doctor and I tried to calculate my lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. Lillian, my mother, died of breast cancer at the age of 48 and that’s why I made this appointment. I have no idea how old Lillian was when she was first diagnosed with the disease so I couldn’t answer my doctor’s question about age of onset. Hell, I didn’t know about my adoption until 11 years ago and didn’t know Lillian’s name until 2012. By the time I found out about her, Lillian had been gone for nearly 30 years.

I recalled hearing from a relative that Lillian had battled cancer for quite a while.  How long is quite a while? Let’s say my mother had the disease for seven years, I told my doctor.  She knew I was guessing and she wasn’t pleased. My doctor quizzed me about the other members of my family who had the disease. I don’t know, I don’t know, I said. My blood relatives are strangers to me.

I knew what my doctor was thinking: you should know your family history! I am adopted, I said, feeling compelled to defend my ignorance.

pic for medical history article
Courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net/Grant Cochrane

As we wrapped up our meeting, my doctor commented on how frustrating this lack of history must be for adopted people.

Yup, adoptees from the sealed records era run into these situations all the time. We don’t have family gossip stored in our memories because we never had a chance to talk with our biological kin. We can’t answer doctors’ questions with actual knowledge. We are clueless about our family histories.

In recent months, I’ve learned a few things about the health issues that run on my mother’s side of the family.  Lillian, in addition to breast cancer, struggled with alcohol and probably bipolar disorder. At least one of her brothers struggled with bipolar disorder, too. Lillian’s father, George, also had a drinking problem. My half-sister has diabetes and suffered a mild stroke some years ago.

What little I know about my mother and her relatives seems like a treasure chest of facts compared to what I have on my father and his family – absolutely nothing.

This problem is finally getting attention from the outside world. New Jersey lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow adoptees to gain access to their medical histories along with their original birth certificates.  I say it’s about time.

In the absence of information, I will do what I can to keep heart attacks, strokes and other bad stuff away.  Healthy genes, heart attack genes, mystery genes – whatever I inherited doesn’t have to dictate what’s going to strike me five, 10 or 20 years from now.

I try to take care of myself by making (mostly) healthy choices. Today I have a head cold. Part of me wants to take a nap, the other part of me thinks it’s time to get up, stretch my legs and have a glass of water with another shot of cold medicine.  It’s snowing and 27 degrees outside but a walk might do me good and get my mind off the things over which I have no control.

Medical History Part II

As adopted adults, we all want to know about the diseases that run in our families. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about uncovering my medical history and learning about my family’s health problems.

Well, I’ve got to be honest. Digging up the truth about my mother, Lillian, has caused me pain. My heart sank when I first talked to my mother’s sister-in-law, Carolyn, a friendly woman who I called out of the blue over Labor Day weekend. Carolyn told me Lillian had a problem with alcohol and mental illness and she was not the only one in her large family to struggle with those demons.

Oh boy. Those are not the first things I wanted to hear about the woman who brought me into the world, a woman I never knew but my first mother all the same.  I felt like a heavy weight had just fallen on me. It really hurt.

But, I reasoned, Carolyn didn’t know Lillian all that well and didn’t really like her. What she remembered about Lillian was not flattering. I didn’t want to take Carolyn’s word for it so I called other people who were close to Lillian. They confirmed what Carolyn told me.

Lillian may have suffered from bipolar disorder. My mother’s best friend, Nancy, recalled the time she and Lillian were at Nancy’s home and they were peeling potatoes. My mother told Nancy, “those voices in my head are telling me to kill you.” Nancy replied, “tell those things to go to hell.” She took the knife away from Lillian, sat her down and offered her beer. Before long, Lillian was fast asleep.

You can’t pass judgments on someone with breast cancer, which is what killed my mother, but you react differently to mental illness and alcoholism. They carry a stigma. It would have hurt me less if I had learned those truths after learning other things about my mother – her hobbies, family background, religion, politics, favorite books or movie stars. When you go on this type of journey, you swallow hard and take the discoveries as they come.

Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness characterized by sweeping mood swings During manic periods, people can become extremely talkative and behave recklessly. It lowers inhibitions and causes people to make bad decisions. The high periods can morph into dark periods in which people feel irritated or angry. During depressed periods, people can experience a loss of energy, feel sad or worthless, and have trouble sleeping. Many people who are bipolar also suffer from alcoholism.

whiskey photo in a glass
Image courtesy of
Suat Eman/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of
David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

My mother ran around with guys. That’s how I came into the world, according to people I’ve talked to who were close to Lillian.

Lillian and her family lived modestly but one year, my mother spent an eye-popping $5,000 on Christmas. Lillian’s husband cut up the credit cards and Lillian proceeded to trash everything in the refrigerator.

If I didn’t know about her health problems, I would hold those shenanigans against her.  What kind of wife and mother goes out with other men? Why wasn’t she home with her family? How does a mom with four kids (five if you count me, the secret child) have the time or energy to run around? How could a responsible woman blow that kind of cash on Christmas? That was an astronomical sum of money for her family, as it would be for many families, mine included.

Risky sex and spending sprees are not uncommon for people with bipolar disorder.

Learning about Lillian’s problems with booze and mental illness help me understand and excuse her behavior. I think the voices in her head, mixed with too much beer and whiskey, explain why she did the things she did.

Alcoholism and bipolar disorder run in families. Lillian and I share genes but we never shared our lives together. We had very different childhoods. Lillian grew up poor in Depression-era Indiana. She was a “welfare child,” as the U.S. Census described her, and she lived with at least two foster families. I grew up in Chicago in a comfortable, lower-middle class home with my adoptive parents and sister, Melissa. We lived in the same house throughout our childhood.

I am one of the calmer people I know. I hate drama and try to keep my life on an even keel as much as possible. I’m not bipolar. I’m also not an alcoholic though I enjoy wine.

I wonder if mental illness, alcoholism and other forms of addiction were common problems for birth moms who gave their babies up for adoption.

On Monday: Medical History Part II

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about uncovering my medical history and the relief it gives me as an adoptee to know about the diseases that run in my family.

To be honest, though, it has not been easy to learn the truth about my mother, Lillian. My heart sank when I found out about her struggles with  alcohol and mental illness. She was not the only one in the family to fight those demons.

I’ll tell you more on Monday.

whiskey photo in a glass
Image courtesy of
Suat Eman/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

 

Medical History Part 1

Every time I go to the doctor’s office, the doctor asks me about my medical history. My answer is always the same: “I’m adopted. I don’t know anything about my medical history.”

Fortunately, that’s no longer true. I’m not completely in the dark about the medical issues that run in my family.

If I learn nothing more about my biological relatives, I will be grateful for the information I have about my birth mother’s health.

Lillian died of breast cancer at the age of 48. That’s what several family members told me and I confirmed it by obtaining a copy of Lillian’s death certificate from the state of Illinois.

Lillian and Howard, wedding day
Lillian with her husband, Howard, in 1971

Not knowing anything about our medical history is a common frustration among adoptees. Even those of us who are healthy want to know which diseases run in the family. Everyone should know their medical history, particularly information on their closest relatives. Having the knowledge means we can ask better questions of our doctors. The knowledge also gives us the power to make lifestyle changes or ask our doctors for specific screenings – whatever steps we can take to counter our genetic heritage.

I have a 13-year-old son, Jake, so my medical history could mean something to him.

jake on clinton rd
My son, Jake, in 2013. Below, little Jake and me in 2003

me and Jake at beach in 2003

It’s impossible to prepare for inherited risks you don’t know about. During an online search, I found these comments, written by an adoptee on Adoption.com:

“My brother…he was also adopted (we had different birth parents). His medical past was littered with mental and physical illness that our parents knew nothing about. It was only when he became a teenager that they could tell something was not right with him. They had his records unsealed by the court system and were shocked to see everything that had not been disclosed. They got him help but he is disabled to the point that he lives in an assisted living facility for the mentally disabled. Had they known earlier, maybe it could have helped, maybe not, but at least knowing about it could have made the situation different.

Although I knew that I was generally healthy, there are lots of things out there that can be carried, or can skip generations. I love the fact that my history is no longer unknown.”

Exactly. It is strangely comforting for me to have a name for the disease that killed my mother.

This week I called my gynecologist. In addition to an annual mammogram, should I do anything more as far as screenings for breast cancer? I asked. Should I be tested for the BRCA genes? (Mutations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are linked to breast and ovarian cancers. Angelina Jolie, after testing positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation, opted to have a double mastectomy.)

The office worker put me on hold to consult the staff. Minutes later, she returned to the phone. As long as you don’t notice any changes in your breasts, she said, you can wait until your annual exam, which is coming up in a couple of months, to discuss the options with your doctor. Ok, that settles that, I thought.

Thinking of Jake, I went online to find out about the risk factors for breast cancer in men. Male breast cancer is rare but, according to the Mayo Clinic, having a family history of breast cancer can increase a guy’s chance of developing the disease. I’m not going to lose sleep over this but it is something to keep in mind.

What have you done differently since you learned about your medical history or your child’s history? I’d love to hear from adoptees and adoptive parents.

 

 

 

 

Coming Monday: Uncovering Medical History

Every time I go to the doctor’s office, the doctor asks me about my medical history. My answer is always the same: “I’m adopted. I don’t know anything about my medical history.”

This is a common frustration for adoptees.

Fortunately, I’m no longer completely in the dark about the medical problems that run in my family.

If I learn nothing more about my biological kin, I will be grateful for the information I have about my birth mother’s health. Stay tuned. I’ll have more to say about medical history on Monday.

nice photo of Lillian and Howard
My birth mother, Lillian