It was a perfect first date. Mike Wozniak, a 26-year-old graphic designer, showed up in the tiny theater above the Liar’s Club, where Jaclyn Jensen, 25, was in a play called The Brides of Ghost Hunter Richard Crowe. Mutual friends set them up. The audience was so small Jensen knew it was him, carrying a pink flower. They had dinner after the show, then walked through Wicker Park, drank margaritas and went up to the roof of his Gold Coast apartment building to enjoy the warm September night.
Wozniak told Jensen he liked her so much, there must be a catch. So she told him.
“I’m glad you like everything you know so far, but if you keep dating me, you won’t be able to keep dating my boobs. I’m going to have them removed.”
As Jensen later explained, she has a gene mutation that makes her up to 87 percent likely to get breast cancer, which killed her aunt and grandmother. It also greatly increases the risk of ovarian cancer. Many women with the gene mutation, known as BRCA (the first two letters of breast and cancer), opt to have their breasts and/or ovaries removed preemptively.
Jensen plans to have a double mastectomy by age 30, or 33 at the latest. She will probably have her ovaries removed a few years later. Such news could be a mood-killer on a first date, but Wozniak took it in stride. Four months later, the couple are still together. Soon after that first date, Wozniak said, “I really like your boobs, but I like who they’re attached to more.”
Jensen was dating her Central Missouri State University sweetheart in 2005 when she took the test for the BRCA gene mutation, as part of a University of Utah study. At the time, she was relieved to be in a steady relationship that she assumed would lead to marriage and kids before her self-imposed deadline for surgery. She moved to Chicago in the summer of 2007 so she could pursue acting while her boyfriend stayed in Bowling Green, Ohio, pursuing his doctorate. When they broke up a few months later, she was concerned about starting the search for Mr. Right all over again.
Jensen had an active dating life for the next two years but was reluctant to tell guys about her gene mutation. “I felt like it would be a pity party,” she says. “I didn’t want to put them in the position of being my knight in shining armor. I just wanted this to be light and fun.”
When Jensen did tell dates, they were generally supportive, some too much so. After she told one suitor about her surgery plans, he was “overly sensitive, sweet, but acting like I was already a sick person who needed help. He opened up about stories of his own family’s medical trauma—I was like, ‘I really don’t need to hear what happened to your uncle ten years ago with his brain.’”
In 2007, Jensen saw an article about Bright Pink, a group of young women with high breast-cancer risk that was founded in Chicago and then spread to other cities. She hadn’t clicked with members of other breast-cancer-risk support groups, who are generally older and already married with kids. At Bright Pink’s hip monthly events, centered around activities like cooking classes or jewelry making, she immediately felt at home. Dating frequently comes up during the meetings.
Bright Pink founder Lindsay Avner jumped into a relationship shortly after learning about her gene mutation at age 22 in 2005. “I was overwhelmed with what felt like an imminent cancer diagnosis and wanted to make sure I was able to fit it all in before cancer struck,” she says. Six months later she realized a rushed relationship wasn’t the way to deal with things. Now she is dating someone but feels no need to “hurry up” her personal life; rather, she is focused on her work with Bright Pink, whose annual VIPink benefit will be held at Cuvee nightclub February 26.
Another Chicago woman with the gene mutation, filmmaker Joanna Rudnick, documents the beginning and end of a relationship in her film In the Family. Her then-boyfriend accused her of being a hypochondriac but later admitted to being “freaked out” about losing her and wondering “does she only like me because she wants to have babies and she wants them quick?”
Many Bright Pink members have already had mastectomies and reconstructive surgery, so they worry what men will think when they get intimate and encounter the silicone and scars. “Obviously when you date someone, part of it is physical attraction,” Jensen says. “Will they still be physically attracted to you when you change your body? And how it will change sex, because you lose sensation, and it will feel different to the guy because they’re implants.”
Wozniak says the impending surgery doesn’t worry him at all. “I like her for her,” he says. “I just love spending time with her. She’s a very magnetic personality—very sweet, very giving.”
Jensen wants kids, and especially if she wants to breast-feed, the clock is ticking. But she is also a fun-loving 25-year-old who doesn’t want to rush a relationship. “I knew if I put too much pressure on it, I’d probably end up with the wrong guy or for the wrong reason. I don’t want to be resentful later that I rushed into having a relationship or family,” she says, noting that if she is single at age 30 she will probably prioritize men who want to start a family soon.
Like Jensen, Wozniak is enjoying their relationship in a living-in-the-moment kind of way. He’s confident their feelings for each other will trump any pressure or questions that might arise about Jensen’s surgeries or planning a family. “We’ve talked jokingly about having kids a few times but nothing serious. I just don’t think about it that much,” he says. All in all, Jensen’s gene mutation isn’t something he dwells on. “I know it’s a serious issue that weighs very much on Jackie’s mind. But it’s part of who she is and I really like who she is, so that’s just the way it is.”