Boston 25 News looked into some of the genetic surprises DNA tests kits can uncover and asked how companies are handling them with customers.
Home DNA tests offer customers a window into a person’s past, but as more Americans sign up with companies like 23andMe or AncestryDNA, the digital family trees they create sometimes reveal strangers.
That’s what happened to 23andMe customer Cynthia Keeler.
"It was really shocking," Keeler said. "Shocking was the big word first, and then denial about how could this be."
Keeler's test connected her to biological relatives and then to a dark, secret conclusion -- the man she always knew to be her dad was not her biological father.
"Once you take that test, you really can't unknow what you've just known or what you see," Keeler said. "And it’s important for people to know it's a roller coaster ride. There's a lot of grief involved."
Keeler is now writing a book about her experience and those of others. She discovered her truth after her mother, the father she grew up with and her biological father all died, leaving her forever wondering what happened.
Therapist Heidi Sposato said what adds to the shock is that most people usually take ancestry tests for entertainment value.
"It’s for fun," she said. "It’s for entertainment, and they don’t know that they’re going to find some deep, dark family secret that generations, maybe, have been covering up."
Sposato helps University of Central Florida students deal with what geneticists call "non-paternal events." There are even support groups popping up on social media sites.
"At the end of the day, there are so many factors to consider," she said. "It definitely is not just one person's secret, so it is important to factor that in and think about does the other family know? Are they waiting and looking for me, waiting for me to reach out?"
Ancestry DNA said in a statement that the company takes the potential effect of complex discoveries very seriously, and it has a special unit dedicated to counseling customers.
Keeler tracked down the few biological relatives she could find, and they had mixed reactions.
"I was very gingerly reaching out, because I think it's very important not to bust into someone else's family and as an outsider," she said. "That's what you could be doing."
Keeler said it took about 18 months to absorb the shock she experienced.
She said she hopes her story will warn others of what they might find if they delve into their ancestry.
"Basically, you feel like your life's a lie a little bit," Keeler said. "You've got to get past it. You think, 'Gee. Everything that I knew growing up, I don’t know what part of that is true anymore or isn't true.'"
The NPE Fellowship, an acronym for "not parent expected," is a popular online support group that seeks to connect people who have gone through a similar experience after taking a DNA test.
The group said it has applied to become a nonprofit organization in hopes it can provide more resources to those affected.
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