At first she thought it was a toothache. Her jaw was tender and swollen. She visited several dentists who refused to take X-rays because she was newly pregnant.
“We went to Mount Sinai Hospital, and they told me to come back in my second trimester,” Elizaveta Bulokhova says from her Vaughan home.
This was last July. The pain got worse. In September, Bulokhova was finally X-rayed. The results sent the young fashion model’s life into a tailspin.
“The cancer was just eating all of my jaw,” the 26-year-old says. “I was in shock.”
Born in Latvia, Bulokhova moved to Toronto with her family at the age of 12. As soon as she finished high school, she jettisoned to Taiwan to kickstart her modeling career.
“I felt really great in front of the camera,” Bulokhova reminisces. “I felt myself.”
Bulokhova found work in places like Hong Kong, Japan, London, New York and South Africa. She appeared in magazines like Cosmopolitan, Flare and Harper’s Bazaar, modeling products for Fila, Hugo Boss, L'Oréal and Redken.
“If you meet models, most of them are insecure,” Bulokhova laughs, remembering old casting calls — hundreds of pretty girls vying to be chosen.
“I was just like everyone else,” she adds. “All girls have some insecurities.”
In October, Bulokhova was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma — a rare form of bone cancerthat was consuming her jawbone. That month, doctors at the University Health Network removed 95 per cent of her infected jaw in an operation that lasted 16 hours. In this and several follow-up procedures, a titanium plate and bone from Bulokhova’s right leg was used to rebuild her jawbone. Nerves and skin tissue were also taken from her leg, arm, hip and shoulder to recreate her mouth and allow her lips to move and feel.
All of this happened while Bulokhova was still pregnant.
Her wounds healed slowly, delaying the aggressive chemotherapy she needed to rid her body of cancer — chemotherapy that would have killed the fetus. With her jaw wired shut, she was forced to eat through a tube inserted in her nose. Bulokhova’s doctors talked about the need to terminate the pregnancy. Her body was a latticework of wires and tubes.
On Bulokhova’s insistence, her doctors tried — and failed — to induce labour.
Then, on Dec. 16, just days before she was to finally begin chemotherapy, Valentin was born by caesarian section. He was ten weeks premature.
“I guess he wasn’t too happy to come out so early, but when I heard him crying it made me smile because I knew he was good,” Bulokhova says, cradling her healthy seven-month-old son in her arms. “One week after, my Christmas dinner started with a cocktail of chemotherapy.”
Valentin spent several weeks in an intensive care unit. Bulokhova endured crippling chemotherapy until the end of April.
There’s still work to do. Because of bacterial contamination, the titanium in Bulokhova’s jaw needs to be replaced with one of her ribs. Bulokhova will also receive dental implants for her new lower jaw. Doctors, meanwhile, will continue to monitor her to make sure the cancer doesn’t recur.
Bulokhova remains positive. She credits her family and longtime boyfriend and father of her child for helping her endure the constant pain, small triumphs and daily humiliations of her protracted recovery.
“My goal is to be happy,” Bulokhova says simply. “I just make a celebration out of every day.”
In May, Manolo Ceron, a local photographer and friend of Bulokhova’s invited the model to his studio for her first photoshoot since her cancer diagnosis. The resulting images highlight the scars that now crisscross Bulokhova’s body. Bulokhova says she was thrilled to be in front of a camera again. Much, however, remains uncertain about her future.
“I want to find a way to do what I love to do with the way I am,” she says.
As she ponders her future, she stays at home caring for Valentin while her partner travels for work.
“After all of this, you kind of start to understand that looks just don’t really matter,” she says, her new mouth smiling.
“We forget to love ourselves for who we are, to work on our personality more, you know — because that’s what shines and makes us beautiful.”