After surviving breast cancer in 2001, Alisa Savoretti, then working as a dancer in Las Vegas, couldn’t afford reconstructive surgery after she had a mastectomy. So she stuffed the right side of her bra with tissue, billed herself as the “Lopsided Showgirl” and went on with her life.
Three years later, when Savoretti finally had an insurance plan that would cover the surgery, she vowed that she would do whatever she could to help other women who shared the same plight. In 2003, she founded “My Hope Chest” a nonprofit that helps uninsured or low-income women afford breast reconstructive surgery that costs an average of $13,500, but can skyrocket to $50,000 or more.
Now retired from dancing and living in Seminole, Florida, Savoretti, 53, has thus far helped 50 women to rebuild their bodies and self-esteem. Her charity — believed to be the only one of its kind in the country — has a waiting list of more than 100 cancer survivors hoping to be made whole again and transform their lives.
Because her nonprofit depends on surgeons who volunteer their talent and time, “it can take anywhere from several months to a year for women to get help, but we’re trying to get more doctors on board across the country,” Savoretti tells PEOPLE, hoping to shine a light on the problems facing uninsured cancer survivors during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Although federal law now requires that insurance companies cover reconstruction surgery, copays and deductibles can cost thousands of dollars, creating hardships for low-income women, says Savoretti.
“And for those who don’t have insurance at all, it’s an even bigger nightmare,” she says. “Breast reconstruction should be a part of the treatment — it’s the final step. Every woman deserves to be restored in mind, body and spirit.”
A classically-trained dancer who grew up in Florida and moved to Las Vegas to work in 1984, Savoretti was stunned when she received a phone call from her doctor one morning while she was preparing to take a trip to New York. The lump she’d found under her right nipple was cancerous and would require a mastectomy and eight rounds of chemotherapy.
When she returned to Las Vegas, a social services agency helped cover the cost of having her breast removed, but Savoretti was on her own to pay for reconstruction.
“I couldn’t afford it, so I did two shows a night, six nights a week as the ‘Lopsided Showgirl,’ ” she tells PEOPLE. “I tried to be good-humored about it. But it really was frustrating and demoralizing not to find a place out there that could help.”
After she was hired to dance at the Riviera casino and finally had health insurance that would cover reconstruction, Savoretti started My Hope Chest in her living room, “thinking that if I could help even one or two women to find some hope and avoid the red tape I had to go through, it would be worthwhile,” she says.
Although her nonprofit is small and the waiting list long, she now hears from thankful women every week.
“I felt like I’d won the lottery when I got the call from My Hope Chest,” Makesha Graydon, 42, a certified nursing assistant from Clearwater, Florida, tells PEOPLE.
Diagnosed with aggressive stage 3 breast cancer in 2009, “I had a left breast mastectomy — the worst day of my life,” she says. “Half of me was gone. I was depressed and didn’t feel attractive anymore. I didn’t have insurance and couldn’t afford surgery.”
Grayson spent five years searching for an agency to help with the cost of reconstruction, but always came up empty. Then a friend told her about My Hope Chest.
“My transformation started in September 2015 — it’s like a prayer has been answered,” she says. “Alisa and My Hope Chest made me feel whole again.”
As for Savoretti, she is determined to continue helping, even though she lost her Las Vegas home after the 2008 housing crisis and had to move in with her mother in Florida.
“No one else is doing this in America or I probably wouldn’t be,” she tells PEOPLE. “It’s important work and I feel called to do it. It’s 2016 and women are still living breastless in America. That’s a reality that shouldn’t be.”