"I choose to feel beautiful, and to love myself," Elizaveta Bulokhova tells PEOPLE
Elizaveta Bulokhova was enjoying a successful modeling career and being newly pregnant when she got the devastating news that she had cancer.
The Ontario, Canada native, 25, first noticed an inflammation on her jaw that increasingly became more painful. After undergoing three biopsy procedures, she was diagnosed with jaw osteosarcoma – a cancer that starts at the bone – and was forced to undergo a series of intensive surgeries to remove it.
“My first surgery lasted 16 hours, with more follow up surgeries in the next several days,” she tells PEOPLE of her October 2014 procedures. “Surgeons used a fibula bone from my right leg, and nerve and skin tissue harvested from leg, arm, hip and shoulder [to perform reconstructive surgery on my jaw].”
The recovery process was extremely difficult.
“I had to relearn how to walk,” says Bulokhova. “For 10 weeks my mouth was wired shut, and I was eating through a tube in my nose. I couldn’t talk and couldn’t brush my teeth. I had tubes coming out all over my body.”
Bulokhova knew her appearance would be dramatically altered by the surgeries, and had to work herself up to facing her own reflection again.
“For a while, I couldn’t look at myself,” she says. “I saw my face in a window reflection, and after that it took me two weeks to mentally prepare myself to look in the mirror.”
Now she has learned to love her new self, scars and all.
“Since doctors used my body to reconstruct my face, I have to be thankful to my body for being strong and saving my life,” says Bulokhova. “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.”
Another reminder of her strength is her healthy son Valentin. Doctors recommended she terminate her pregnancy to undergo chemotherapy, but Bulokhova chose to wait, and was able to carry her child for enough time to have him safely delivered via C-section.
“He saved my life, and I prayed for him to be born,” she says.
RELATED: Hugh Jackman: The Moment I Was Told I Had Skin Cancer
Bulokhova celebrated her survival with a gorgeous new photo shoot shot by photographer Manolo Ceron, in which she wears nothing but makeup by Julia Stone. Because she was so comfortable modeling before her surgeries, she had no issue stepping in front of the camera again.
“I just wanted to be myself again, to feel like nothing has changed, and to do what made me the happiest,” she says. “My work was such a big part of my life that I enjoyed.”
Bulokhova loves that the photos – which are unretouched – put her scars on full display.
“It’s as real as it gets,” she says of the images. “This is a new me – I have nothing to hide. Cancer sucks, and it did play a big role in the way I look, but how I feel about myself is my choice. I choose to feel beautiful, and to love myself.”
She hopes the photographs will inspire others to embrace different types of beauty, and to choose to focus on happiness.
“Looks change but how we feel about ourselves is up to us,” says Bulokhova. “Why not choose to be happy and do what makes you happy?”