Cancer is a devastating illness which affects almost all of our lives in one way or another. Even though billions of dollars are being spent on potential cures and treatments, it is estimated that half of all people will develop the disease in their lifetimes.
Unlike in the not-so-distant past, a cancer diagnosis does not equate to a death sentence and half of those diagnosed will beat the disease. Mortality rates are dependent on a number of factors, but the earlier that cancer is diagnosed, the better the odds. One of the rarest forms of cancer is osteosarcoma, which is also known as bone cancer. It’s particularly unusual for a person to develop osteosarcoma in their jaw, but it is relatively easy to diagnose – starting with painful swelling that does not go away. Canadian model Elizaveta Bulokhova, then 24, knew something was wrong whilst on holiday with her boyfriend Roman Troubetskoi in May 2014. The right-hand side of her jaw was swollen, and this pain got progressively worse until she sought help in July of that year. The pain was unbearable, and she knew that she was not suffering from an extreme case of toothache. It didn’t take long for biopsies and CT scans to reveal that she had a rare form of osteosarcoma, and this diagnosis was accompanied by two other pieces of devastating news. Bulokhova was told that if she wanted to survive, she’d have to have her jaw removed. At this point in her life, she had already been modeling professionally for seven years and knew that her career would most likely end as a result. But the worst news was still to come. Tragically, the Latvian-born Bulokhova was pregnant when she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, and doctors informed her that she would have no option but to abort her unborn baby, despite already being in her second trimester, so that she could have chemotherapy. “He was very active, and I would talk to him often while he was in my womb,” she recalled in an interview with Vice. “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.” In October 2014, 95% of Bulokhova’s jaw was removed by doctors at the University Health Network. The operation took a grueling 16 hours to complete, and once it was over, her jaw was reconstructed using fibula, veins, nerves and skin grafts from her right leg and right shoulder. Her ordeal, however, was far from over. The reconstruction of Bulokhova’s jaw also required a number of further operations. Doctors had to use a titanium plate and bone from her leg to make a new jawbone. On top of this, nerves and tissue from her leg, arm, hip, and shoulder were used to create a functioning mouth and lips. These procedures did not go smoothly, but this proved to be a blessing in disguise for the 24-year-old. This meant that her chemotherapy would not start until ten weeks before she was due to give birth so days before her scheduled abortion, she asked if it was possible to have her baby. “It was f**ked up,” she said. “We basically had to tell the doctors to kill our perfectly healthy baby, but we had no choice… Then, with Valentin [her son] being nearly 28 weeks, we asked doctors where that put him. ‘Is it safe to deliver him?’ they said, ‘Absolutely, let’s do this.’” The young woman’s boyfriend Troubetskoi stayed by her side throughout her ordeal, and she managed to not only have her baby, but recover from the cancer. Then, just two months after her chemotherapy ended, she began to model again. For the incredible photo shoot, Bulokhova worked with Toronto-based photographer Manolo Ceron, who wanted to use the photographs to highlight her strength and resilience. As I’m sure you’ll agree, the final result is stunning. Bulokhova’s scars are clearly visible in the pictures. Speaking about the photo shoot, Ceron said, “We wanted to use art as a tool to tell her story. 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.” It is not known whether Bulokhova will attempt to return to modeling full time in the future. For now, she is focusing on regaining her strength and enjoying family life with her partner and young son, who she said gave her the strength to beat cancer. However, if Bulokhova does decide to return to modeling, she will become one of many young women who are proving that perceived physical imperfections are not a barrier to looking beautiful. Something this amputee knows all too well… Fourteen-year-old Haven Shepherd had a tragic start in life. She lost both legs-below-the-knee when her parents committed suicide using an explosive device. They took their lives because their affair would never be accepted in their hometown of Phuong Twi Do, Vietnam. But when she was 20 months old, things improved for Shepherd when she was adopted by a family from Carthage, Missouri. “I grew up hearing how I lost my leg and felt like it was a normal thing that had happened to others, it was only as the years went on that I realized I’m probably the only one with this story,” she said in an interview with the Daily Mail. “I tell people the truth, that my parents had an affair and had me, but in Vietnam, women cannot divorce, so when they committed suicide and all the damage was done to my legs.” “One of my earliest memories is my sisters telling me that while I am different from them, my differences are what make me who I am and special from everyone else. My family have always been very supportive and taught me not to be held back because I have to use prosthetics.” Taking her family’s advice to heart, Shepherd has now begun modeling. “I’ve started modeling after realizing a bunch of people weren’t happy with who they are, I want them to show them it’s ok to be different,” she said. “I want them to see the unique things about themselves in a positive way and that diversity is a good thing, if I feel comfortable, they can too.” Another model who is proving that nothing should stop you from chasing your dreams is 34-year-old Katie Meade who defied the odds to become the world’s first model with Down’s syndrome. Check out her story below! We wish all the best to Meade and Shepherd in their modeling careers and Bulokhova with whatever she decides to do in the future.