The Extraordinary Photos of a Woman Who Returned to Modeling After Losing Her Jaw to Cancer
Elizaveta Bulokhova walked down runways across the world, but that all changed after a fateful diagnosis.
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
With a refined gait, she'd walked down runways through Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, South Africa, Greece, London, and Manhattan, where she took up residency and spent her days jostling through droves of New Yorkers en route to many casting calls.
Elizaveta Bulokhova studied to become a law clerk, but left Toronto for London soon after graduating from Humber College, thus beginning a seven-year career as a fashion model that saw her live and travel around the world.
In May 2014, 24-year-old Bulokhova and her boyfriend, Roman Troubetskoi, were in Amsterdam enjoying some much needed, yet seldom spent, time together, when the right side of her jaw began to swell.
By July, the pain grew unbearable and ensuing biopsies and CT scans revealed a rare form of osteosarcoma—bone cancer—in her jaw. To survive, not only would Bulokhova's jaw require removal, doctors told her she would have to terminate Valentin, her unborn son, before commencing five cycles of debilitating chemotherapy.
"He was very active and I would talk to him often while he was in my womb," she said. "I had to tell him to stop moving because I couldn't keep him and then all of a sudden he did. He listened; he stopped moving."
Sixteen hours of surgery to remove the tumor, then her jaw, followed by reconstruction using fibula, veins, nerves, and skin grafts from her right leg, as well as grafts from her right shoulder, all but put an end to her modeling career. Worse still, Valentin was in danger of developmental disabilities because of the anesthesia—that's if he'd survive at all. Successive surgeries over the coming days involved taking blood vessels from her leg and grafting them onto her new jaw.
In all, 17cm, or 95 percent, of her jaw was removed. It would be a month before she found the courage to look in a mirror again. Troubetskoi occasionally caught Bulakhova glancing diffidently at her bedroom window reflection, and he covered their bathroom mirror until she was ready.
Complications arose from the surgeries and postponed Bulokhova's chemotherapy. It was then, two days before her scheduled abortion, that the couple sought their legion of doctors' advice on delivering Valentin ten weeks early.
"It was fucked up; we basically had to tell the doctors to kill our perfectly healthy baby, but we had no choice," Troubetskoi said of their months-long anguish. "Then with Valentin being nearly 28 weeks, we asked doctors where that put him. Is it safe to deliver him? They said, 'Absolutely, let's do this.'"
Added Bulakhova, "I started talking to the baby again and said 'We're back on!' That period was quite tough."
Through cesarean section, Valentin was delivered ten weeks early and spent the next 51 days in neonatal intensive care. However, given the antecedent months of perniciousness, his birth was hailed a miracle.
Bulokhova, though, wasn't out of the woods.
"Chemo kills all taste buds, so I was not hungry and I couldn't even chew properly," she said, adding that it would take her an hour to eat a single boiled egg. "I was scared to drink because sometimes even water would come out of (the side of my) face and that would really traumatize me, and my stomach shrunk because of the liquid diet. There was no way I could eat at all. I became very malnourished. The mechanical process of eating was terrible."
Fourteen months after the ordeal began—and two months removed from her last round of chemotherapy—25-year-old Bulokhova and 30-year-old Troubetskoi sat side by side in their Vaughan, Ontario condominium while we spoke. When a neighbor stopped by to pick up Valentin for the afternoon, he remarked "He looks bigger every time I see him."
Bulokhova's hair has long begun sprouting; her top row of teeth is still straight as ever, but she struggles to speak at times because only four of her bottom teeth remain. In a couple of years, when her cancer is in remission, she'll have more reconstructive surgery. Standing tall at 5'8" and 108 pounds—only four pounds lighter than before her near-fatal prognosis—her new lease on life is anything but platitudinous.
The fortitude Bulakohova mustered over the last 14 months was captured in a new photo series by Toronto photographer Manolo Ceron. In it, a vulnerable Bulokhova celebrates survival.
"We wanted to use art as a tool to tell her story," said Ceron. "Eli (Bulakhova) is the theme. She is the story and everything else is a tool to enhance that beauty and her strength. It shows how fragile we are and how beautiful we are. It's hard to put one core message in it, but there's a lot of hope and strength and there are a lot of cancer survivors out there who might take something from this, and maybe that's what the underlying message is."
In one of the series' most moving photographs, Valentin reaches for his mother. "He saved my life—that's the biggest part," said Bulakhova. "He really looked out for me. He gave me a schedule to follow that helped me work on myself without stopping. It didn't give me a break, but in a good way. It kept me going. I didn't have time to pity myself. I kind of believe that if I weren't pregnant, I'd have been treated as another patient who's going through cancer and needed surgery. He's the one who took care of me to make sure everyone was on their game."
Troubetskoi was by Bulakhova's side throughout the whole thing. He read everything there was to know about her illness and the ways in which doctors would treat her, and spent incalculable hours away from work and in the hospital, day and night.
Unconcerned by a future modeling career rendered nebulous at best, Bulakhova has found peace with her family.