In 1895 Michigan, a seamstress named Pauline Gross confided in a pathologist at that she feared she’d die young. The pathologist, intrigued, asked what she thought she’d die of. Cancer, she said—just as it had killed many of her relatives. At the time, Gross didn’t know this encounter would result in her family becoming the longest and most detailed cancer genealogy ever studied, or that a century later scientists would discover the genetic mutation that made her lineage so susceptible to the disease. And she had no idea her great-great niece would one day write a book about the entire ordeal.
In 2001, then-33-year-old Ami McKay became one of the first people to ever be genetically tested for Lynch Syndrome, a mutation causing a predisposition to cancers of the endometrium, colon, ovaries and more. People who inherit Lynch can have more than an 80 percent chance of developing cancer in their lifetime. Her test came back positive—and in the interceding years McKay, who lives in Scots Bay, Nova Scotia, has published bestselling novels, raised two sons, taken up beekeeping and slowly learned how to live as a “previvor”. During the summer of her 49th birthday, McKay decided it was time to tell her family’s story in its entirety and gave herself one year to do it.
The result of that year of work is Daughter of Family G, a memoir chronicling McKay’s family history, starting with her great-great aunt Pauline Gross and her own experience living in what she describes as “an unsettling state between wellness and cancer.” The book details how Gross’s encounter with the pathologist and his initial research eventually played a massive role in the development of a test for Lynch Syndrome. It moves fluidly between three timelines, one beginning in 1895, one in 2000 and one in present day.
“The memoir gave me the space I needed to weave those timelines together and find connections between then,” said McKay. “Those connections, in turn, yielded some pretty meaningful personal revelations.”
In researching the book McKay interviewed geneticists, pored over medical records, dug up old newspapers and read letters written by her relatives. To distill the complex science behind Lynch Syndrome, McKay says she focused on the personal stories of the researchers that fuelled their efforts: “It’s one thing to interview the world's leading geneticists, it’s quite another to put their work into language that’s not just understandable, but compelling,” she said.
McKay, whose previous novels include The Witches of New York, The Virgin Cure and The Birth House, says promoting Daughter of Family G has been a completely new experience. “I’m used to talking about my characters and their journeys and my relationship to them as an author,” said McKay. “This time around, I’m both author and protagonist. It’s a very vulnerable place to be.”
Though she undergoes preventative tests and procedures every year, McKay has, up until this point, lived cancer free. “To me, wellness isn’t about being perfectly fit or disease-free, it’s about finding peace – in the body, mind and soul,” she says. “If I spend my life’s journey spreading seeds of love and kindness than I’ll have travelled well.”