Student’s Thumb Amputated After Getting Cancer Caused By Biting Of Nails
A student had had her thumb amputated after developing a rare form of skin cancer caused by BITING HER NAILS.
Courtney Whithorn, 20, bit her thumb nail off completely in 2014 after she developed the nervous habit when she was bullied at school.
She ‘freaked out’ when her thumb started to turn black but kept it hidden from her friends and family for four years.
However after she decided to go for plastic surgery to try to sort it out she made the horrifying discovery she had acral lentiginous subungual melanoma.
She says now ‘cries every time it’s brought up’ as she has no idea whether the cancer could return due to there being such little information about it.
And she says because the location of the cancer in her thumb was unknown if it shows up in future scans in other parts of her body then “they’re just going to have to keep cutting away until we get a clear result.”
The second year psychology student has also deferred for a year because she is unable to write.
Since her shock diagnosis in July, Courtney has had to have four surgeries.
Despite attempts to save her thumb, Courtney’s fourth surgery which took place last week saw the digit completely removed.
Courtney, originally from Newton Aycliffe, Co Durham, but moved to The Gold Coast, Australia, nine years ago said: “When I found out that biting my nail off was the cause of the cancer it shattered me.
“In my head I thought ‘I’ve done this to myself’ but obviously I knew I shouldn’t have that mentality.
“I couldn’t believe it.
“When you think about it how many kids bite their nails it’s crazy it came to that.
“I bit the nail off four years ago and I was obviously very self-conscious of how black it was.
“My hand was just constantly in a fist because I didn’t want anyone to see it – not even my parents.
“I got a bit freaked out when my skin started to go black so I showed them for the first time this year.
“I can’t even explain how self-conscious I was. I always had fake nails to hide it because it was so black. It was like paper whenever it grew back.
“I went to the doctors because my skin started turning black but I went for cosmetic reasons and my GP referred me to a plastic surgeon.
“I saw two plastic surgeons, and they were thinking to remove my nail bed to get rid of the black and then put a skin graft over it so at least it would be skin colour – I was happy with that.
“But before my first surgery to remove the nail bed, the doctors could tell something was wrong and decided to do a biopsy.
“I had to wait six week for the results. They were sent down to Sydney because they couldn’t tell if the biopsy was malignant or benign.
“The result came back uncertain so the surgeons wanted to be safe and remove the whole nail bed and any blackness.
“They did more tests and when those results came back, I was told that it was a malignant melanoma which was very rare to have there, especially for someone my age and at that size.
“I was obviously very shocked I couldn’t believe it at all. My mum just burst into tears.”
After Courtney’s second surgery to remove her nail bed, she had a PET scan to produce a detailed 3D image of the inside of her thumb and no more cancerous cells were found.
But panic arose when just a week after thinking she had the all clear, specialists in Sydney told Courtney’s surgeon that the protocol for her form of melanoma is amputation.
The surgeon decided to first perform a third surgery, creating a wider incision in Courtney’s thumb to remove any more malignant cells – but that operation only confirmed the need to amputate.
Part-time receptionist Courtney, who is still recovering from her amputation, said: “The plastic surgeon texted me saying that protocol for this melanoma, because it’s so rare, is amputation.
“I had a panic attack at work, I read the word ‘amputation’ and ran outside – I couldn’t breathe.
“My mum had to come to my work, my boss was tying my hair up and wafting my shirt. I freaked out – we’d never even spoken about amputation.
“We went and saw a melanoma specialist who also agreed that amputation was protocol because this was such a rare cancer.
“I went in for a third surgery and the doctor told me that if he saw anything cancerous then he would have to take the whole thumb.
“So I went to sleep not knowing whether or not I was going to wake up with my thumb. When I woke up and it was still there and I was so happy.
“I also had two lymph nodes taken out for them to test whether or not the cancer had spread.
“The pigmentation from my thumb had travelled so it was dark but none of the malignant cells had travelled yet.
“Literally everything we’ve caught, we’ve caught it on the cusp of it going to the rest of my body – the timing has just been everything.
“Because it had started to travel, the only option left was amputation but this time I was much more prepared for that news.
“I wasn’t scared going in for the amputation surgery – I was more nervous as I’m not a big fan of needles and stuff.”
Courtney’s passion for writing is going to be affected a lot now she has had her thumb amputated from above the knuckle.
The student has also had to defer her studies at Griffiths University to recover.
Courtney said: “I love to write, I journal a lot. I write everything down that I’m feeling as a relief sort of thing.
“The thought of not really being able to write for a while is definitely a big change for me.
“I’ve had to defer university as well because I can’t write. I’m in my second year and I’m supposed to graduate next year but now it won’t be until the year after.
“I’m still waiting for that set of results from the surgery last week and if it’s clear then the surgeon watches me for the next five years and I get regular scans and bloods.
“There’s not enough research to say what the survival rate is or what the likelihood of it coming back is because – we just don’t know much about it. I’ve just cried every time it’s been brought up.
“The location of the cancer in my thumb is unknown so if it still shows up then they’re just going to have to keep cutting away until we get a clear result.”
At the age of 16 Courtney became the victim of school bulling – and the stress and anxiety triggered her intense nail biting.
Courtney said: “I’ve been a nail biter my whole life, but in 2014 I was in year 11 in high school and I was chronically bullied.
“Rumours were started about me and if I sat with people at lunch they would completely ignore me like I didn’t exist.
“Nail biting became a coping mechanism for me.
“I didn’t even know I was biting my nails sometimes – it just happened. I sort of lost the feeling because I was doing it that often.
“I didn’t even realise I’d bitten my whole thumb nail off until I saw how much blood was on my hand.
“It never really grew back the same. It only grew on one side of my thumb and I kept biting it off then eventually the bottom of my nail turned black.
“I just thought it was dead like when people bang their nails.”
After her classmate Tyson Donnelly, now 20, stuck up for her during the intense bullying, he and Courtney became more than just friends – and have been dating for four years.
Tyson has helped his girlfriend through the trauma of her cancer diagnosis and Courtney believes it has brought them closer together.
Courtney said: “Me and Tyson went to the same school. I wasn’t really friends with him but he literally walked over to these girls who were talking about me and told them to shut up and leave me alone.
“He took me to sit with him and that’s sort of how we met. We’ve been together since then so that’s one good thing to come out of it.
“Without my boyfriend or family I honestly don’t know how I would have got through all this.
“I want to share my story for people who are being bullied and people who are doing the bullying.
“I hope it would make them stop doing what they’re doing or give someone the courage to speak up and get help or tell their parents what’s been happening at school.
“It would be a massive thing, it would be a massive accomplishment for me I would just feel like I’ve done something. I think that would be a good win.
“I just wish I was as confident and as outspoken as I am now back then.
“If I could say anything it would be just stand up for yourself – absolutely no matter what it takes just stand up for yourself.
“Some people have asked me who my biggest hero is or biggest influencer is and now I say ‘me’. Be your own person and be who you need to be.”