For Latvian-born Canadian model Elizaveta Bulokhova a vacation to Amsterdam in May 2014 was the first time in a while that she had time to rest and reconnect with her electrician boyfriend, Roman Troubetskoi. Her booming runway career had taken the then 24-year-old from her home in Toronto to Manhattan, Hong Kong, South Africa, London, and many places in between.
But her romantic getaway to the picturesque capital of the Netherlands would not go as planned. As the model and Troubetskoi, 29, explored the city’s beautiful canals together, her jaw began to swell and become sore. Bulokhova thought it was toothache. It wasn’t enough to completely derail the couple’s trip, but it wasn’t something she could soothe with a few painkillers either.
Within two months, that toothache had turned into something more painful and potentially much more serious. Bulokhova’s doctors performed a series of CT scans and biopsies to figure out why the young woman was suffering such persistent and increasingly debilitating pain.
In October 2014, they had their answer and it confirmed all their worst fears – poor Bulohkova had cancer. More specifically, the model was suffering from osteosarcoma, a rare type of bone cancer, which had taken over her jaw. Oncology specialists would have to devise a grueling treatment plan for Bulohkova to undergo in order to fight the aggressive disease.
She learned that surgeons would have to take away 95 percent of her cancer-stricken jaw. She would also have to undergo five rounds of chemotherapy, which – if effective – would remove and prevent the growth and spread of cancer cells. However, chemotherapy can be a sledgehammer of a tool against the disease. The toxic drug treatment can also damage healthy cells as it destroys cancerous ones. Chemotherapy can also lead to patients suffering nausea, hair loss and even susceptibility to infection due to the attendant weakening of their immune systems.
But Bulokhova’s list of concerns didn’t begin and end with the risks and pain of invasive surgery and the list of uncomfortable and unwelcome side effects chemotherapy could bring. That’s because she had recently discovered she was pregnant. Bulokhova was now worrying for two; she had to consider the implications for her baby as well.
But at that point, her oncologists had to deliver news Bulokhova found even more upsetting than her cancer diagnosis. Before she could commence with her chemotherapy treatments after surgery, she would have to terminate her perfectly healthy pregnancy. For someone who later told the U.K. tabloid newspaper the Daily Mail how she had dismissed the initial pain as toothache and “never even thought… that it could be anything more than that,” this turn of events must have floored her.
After this cruel twist of fate, Bulokhova had to make a hard decision if she wanted to survive. She decided to listen to the oncologists’ orders and abort her and Troubetskoi’s fetus. Emotionally, she was in desperate need of support in order to cope with this choice. So, as she had been doing throughout her pregnancy so far, she spoke to the unborn baby. This time she was asking for his help.
In order to contemplate a termination, Bulokhova felt she could not bear to feel the baby move. “He was very active and I would talk to him often while he was in my womb,” she told the online magazine Vice in July 2015. “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.”
Bulokhova then embarked on the long and torturous treatment plan that would hopefully lead her to remission. First, she underwent a 16-hour surgery to excise the tumor and the majority of her jaw. Surgeons then went about reconstructing the bone in a series of operations. “[They] used a fibula bone from my right leg, and nerve and skin tissue harvested from [my] leg, arm, hip and shoulder,” she told the celebrity magazine People.
During the marathon procedure and the follow-up reconstructive surgeries that took place in the days afterward, Bulokhova’s unborn son was at tremendous risk. Because his mom was under heavy sedation, he could have suffered developmental disabilities as a reaction to the anesthesia. There was also a considerable danger that he would die during the surgery for this same reason.
These intense and invasive operations led to complications for Bulokhova. Her jaw took longer to heal than the specialists expected. This had a knock-on effect for her scheduled chemotherapy treatments, which had to be postponed. This, in turn, meant that her abortion procedure had to also be pushed to a later date.
Finally, in late 2014 Bulokhova’s body was sufficiently robust for her first round of chemotherapy. At that point, her son had reached 28 weeks of gestation, which meant he was about 10 weeks shy of full development. Babies born at 24 weeks have only a 50 percent chance of survival, so Bulokhova’s pre-chemo question for her medical team doubtless surprised them all.
Just two days before she was scheduled to start chemotherapy, the hopeful mom-to-be and Troubetskoi asked doctors if there was any way to safely deliver their son and effectively administer Bulokhova’s treatment afterwards. Their response was the best news the couple had heard in months. “They said, ‘Absolutely, let’s do this,’” Bulokhova recalled to Vice.
Once again, Bulokhova felt good about her pregnancy and that something positive could be snatched from the months of misery she had endured. She celebrated the news by resuming her conversations with the baby boy in her womb. “I started talking to the baby again and said, ‘We’re back on!’,” she said. And, on December 16, 2014 – some two months after Bulokhova’s cancer diagnosis – doctors took the steps to induce her labor.
Unfortunately, the natural labor option didn’t go to plan – Bulokhova couldn’t dilate, meaning it was impossible for her to deliver her son herself. Doctors would have to perform a caesarean section. As they carried out the operation, all Bulokhova could hear was her newborn son’s cries. She took this as a good omen.
Bulokhova and Troubetskoi named the new arrival Valentin. The baby boy certainly defied the odds — in fact, doctors considered his healthy birth a miracle. Valentin spent 51 days in neonatal care, though this was a blessing in disguise for Bulokhova. She could relax somewhat, knowing her son was enjoying expert care. This allowed her to concentrate on recovering from her surgery and adjust to the rigors of chemotherapy. She began her first drug treatment cycle one week after her son’s birth, on Christmas Day in fact. “In a sense, it gave us a little bit of time to take it easy,” she told the Daily Mail.
Of course, taking it easy wouldn’t suit Bulokhova for too long. After all, the ambitious young woman had spent the last seven years jet-setting around the world, posing in photo shoots and strutting down catwalks. But it took Bulokhova a long time to pluck up the courage to even look at herself in the mirror. She was understandably fearful of what she would see after having bones removed and replaced. But eventually Bulokhova realized she should cherish her body after treatment, because it was strong enough to get her through the terrifying and painful ordeal.
“Since doctors used my body to reconstruct my face, I have to be thankful to my body for being strong and saving my life,” Bulokhova told People magazine. “My scars mean ‘survival.’ I love my scars. I think they are beautiful. They remind me not to give up, to take care, and to love myself.”
And, 14 months after the “toothache” had given the first indication of her war on cancer, Bulokhova put her hard-earned battle scars on display for a photo shoot in early 2015. She also brought Valentin along – she claimed her son was the reason for her survival. “[My pregnancy] kept me going. I didn’t have time to pity myself,” she told Vice. “He saved my life – he’s the biggest part.” And for the young mom it is just the beginning – Bulokhova’s cancer is now in remission. But for her, that’s not the most incredible part of the journey. The model told womens’ magazine Cosmopolitan that year, “I can’t believe I am a mom, and that I have my own family.”