Illustration: Michael Byers
Alisa SavorettiSeminole, Florida
When Savoretti found a lump in her breast in 2001, she was 38 and uninsured. After Medicaid turned her down, a social services program helped her pay for a mastectomy and chemotherapy, but not reconstructive surgery. Desperate for insurance and money to pay her mounting bills, Savoretti returned to her former career as a professional dancer in Las Vegas, billing herself as the Lopsided Showgirl to raise awareness of her plight. "It helped—a lot—to have a sense of humor," she says. "When I finally got my reconstruction, I named my girls Zsa Zsa and Eva."
In 2003 Savoretti founded a nonprofit called My Hope Chest, to assist other patients in paying for reconstructive surgery, a procedure that can cost more than $50,000. While struggling to get her organization off the ground, she made ends meet by working a series of jobs (nanny, deli clerk, gardener); during her breaks she worked the phones to organize fund-raisers and set up pro bono operations. Nine years later, My Hope Chest has transformed the lives of nine breast cancer survivors, and five more surgeries are scheduled for this year. "We've served only a handful of patients to date," says Scott Sullivan, MD, a volunteer surgeon, "but each one has gained a new sense of hope."
Lisa Newman, MDNorthville, Michigan
As a young surgeon in Brooklyn in the 1990s, Newman witnessed firsthand the breast cancer disparities between black and white patients. Black women are twice as likely to have triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC), an aggressive and poorly understood form of the disease. "It was heartbreaking to see the cancer affecting black women lead disproportionately to their deaths," she says.
Today Newman is a surgical oncologist at the University of Michigan, but twice a year she travels to the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital in Ghana, where TNBC is especially rampant. (It accounts for more than 80 percent of breast cancer cases in Ghana.) Newman is convinced that her patients in both countries are linked through shared ancestry, and she hopes that by comparing their DNA samples, she'll help pave the way for a new treatment. "Studying families with a high incidence of breast cancer led scientists to the BRCA gene," she explains. "We hope our research will reveal more about the genetic markers associated with this disease."
Connie RufenbargerWarsaw, Indiana
Eight years ago, Rufenbarger, a breast cancer survivor and advocate, was sitting in the back of the room at a medical conference when she heard a scientist mention a major hindrance to breast cancer research: a lack of tissue samples from healthy women to use as a control. Rufenbarger stood up and said, "I can't do the science, but if you need women to give you tissue, done deal."
Three years later, she cofounded the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Tissue Bank at the Indiana University Simon Cancer Center—the only known biorepository of normal breast tissue in the world. On collection days, Rufenbarger passes out coffee to the hundreds of women who line up to donate and volunteer. "It's humbling to witness the selflessness of these women," says the bank's executive director, Anna Maria Storniolo, MD. "And it could be game changing for researchers."
More Inspirational Women
From the October 2012 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
We Hear You!