Adopted siblings united after 40 years, learn of genetic predisposition to breast cancer
A desperate search for a long-lost sibling led two California women to Lake Havasu City this year. Every family has secrets, but what Karen Hogue didn’t know could kill her.
Their family was a puzzle that Hogue’s older sister, Southern California resident Julia Williams, spent more than four decades attempting to solve. Of six siblings, only two were raised by the family’s birth mother. The rest, including Hogue and Williams, were raised by adoptive families under separate last names.
It was only in 2015 when Williams learned of the danger lurking within her family’s genes – a hereditary predisposition to breast cancer.
Pieces of a puzzle
After 40 years of searching through public records, search engines and genealogical databases, Julia found her long-lost sister, Susan George, of Napa, California. A business owner and aesthetician, George had never been told that she had younger siblings. She only learned of Williams’ existence after receiving an email from her through her workplace in July 2015.
“We started talking on the telephone … our first conversation lasted six hours,” Williams said. “There were a lot of questions, filling in gaps we didn’t understand. Her mother never said anything about a younger child.”
On Aug. 25, 2015, Williams and George met in person for the first time. To both sisters, the resemblance was startling. Their reunion was accompanied by family, children and spouses, but Williams knew her work wasn’t done.
“We have a sister out there,” Williams told her sister. “I haven’t been able to find her. Her name is Karen, and she was born in 1958.”
After years of searching without success, however, the need to find Hogue became much more dire.
“Susan told me that I needed to get to a doctor and have a mammogram done,” Williams said. “Breast cancer runs in our family. She had it, her mother had it and another female relative had it … I would have waited until my next physical to have it done – She said to me: ‘No. Do it now’.”
Williams saw her physician on Aug. 30, 2015. According to Williams, what her physician found made him worry. “I had an ultrasound and biopsy done on the same day,” Williams said. “Four days later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. (George) saved my life – I could have put it off forever.”
In September 2015, Williams was scheduled to have surgery to remove the cancer.
“My new sister was with me,” Williams said. “We started talking while they were prepping me for surgery. Susan said, ‘We have to find Karen’.”
Williams and her birth mother were diagnosed with breast cancer when they were 59, her sister told her. George was diagnosed when she was 60. According to Williams, she and her siblings saw the search for Karen as a race against time.
In Lake Havasu City, however, Hogue knew nothing of her family’s history with the disease.
Hogue, now 60, always knew she was adopted. “I never gave much thought to my siblings or birth mother because I had such a great family,” she said.
This May, Hogue received a friend request through Facebook from “Julia Kellogg Williams,” a name she didn’t recognize. Hogue remembered visiting William’s Facebook page to learn more about the woman – and found a photograph of herself.
“Anyone who recognizes this person, contact me ASAP,” Williams posted on May 29. “We believe she is our ‘lost’ sister, Karen Lee (Evans) Hogue. Daughter of Marie & Harold Evans. Although she may not know it, she was adopted and has three sisters and one brother who would like to meet her.”
Attached to the message was a series of photographs that featured members of Hogue’s birth family … including her birth mother, Katherine LaChaze, who is now 83 years old.
“She looked so much like me,” Hogue said. “I looked at the picture, and I cried for about 20 minutes … I just cried. I told my son, ‘my family has found me’. I was excited and anxious … I wanted to spread the news.”
According to Williams, Hogue contacted her soon afterward. “I gave her my phone number, and within 30 minutes I was getting a phone call from the little sister I had never met,” Williams said. “Karen and I had a really nice conversation, and started talking about arranging a meeting. I even got Susan involved in the conversation and told her, ‘I found her’.”
Hogue met her sisters and brother for the first time on Sept. 30, in Lake Havasu City. They were accompanied by their older brother, 67-year-old Tim George, who was surrendered to California’s foster care system in 1959.
“It’s such a fantastic feeling to know you grew up an only child and suddenly you have brothers and sisters … not just one, but five of them,” Williams said. “After finding Karen and being able to meet her, all of the pieces seemed to fit. Now we have all the pieces of the puzzle, and they fit together to make a bigger picture.”
For Hogue, there was no mistaking the ties that now bind them.
“It was … you look at their face, and it feels like you’ve known them forever,” Hogue said. “It didn’t seem strange at all. But then I found out one of the reasons Julia was so determined to find me was that she had breast cancer … Susan and my birth mother also had breast cancer.”
Hogue receives a mammogram from her physician every year, but this year had a BRCA gene-test to determine whether she had inherited her family’s disposition toward breast cancer.
“It was really scary to think my siblings and mother had breast cancer,” Hogue said. “My daughter freaked out. It took about two weeks to get the test results … but they were negative.”
Those results, and their reunion itself would have been cause enough to celebrate. The family did so early this month with a cake frosted with the simple words: “HAPPY EVERYTHING.”
“We missed most of those things sisters get to do together,” Williams said. “We never got to have pillow fights, fix each other’s hair, meet each other’s boyfriends before dates, or be there for each other’s weddings … there was so much we didn’t get to do. This month we celebrated all of the graduations we missed, all the birthdays, the babies and everything we missed together.”
For Hogue, it was a chance to compare their experiences and learn their family’s disjointed history. “It was so strange, learning different things, comparing our quirks. It’s fun to see how much we had in common, even though we never knew each other.”
Williams, Tim George and Susan George have each returned to their California homes, where another of their sisters, Deborah George, also resides.
Katherine LaChaze, their birth mother, remains in a senior living facility in Napa, where Hogue says she has been diagnosed with dementia. Hogue says she would one day like to meet LaChaze, if possible.