Student has thumb amputated after anxious nail biting caused rare cancer

A university student has had to have her thumb amputated after developing a rare form of skin cancer caused by biting her nails.

Courtney Whithorn from The Gold Coast, Australia, developed the nervous habit after being bullied at school.

Courtney (20) even bit her thumb nail clean off in 2014.

At the age of 16 Courtney became the victim of school bullying – and the stress and anxiety triggered her intense nail biting habit.

“Rumours were started about me and if I sat with people at lunch they’d 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 didn’t even realise I’d bitten my whole thumb nail off until I saw how much blood was on my hand.

“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.”

Despite being freaked out when her thumb started to turn black, the embarrassed teen kept it hidden from friends and family for four years.

But the psychology student had caused such major trauma to her nail bed that it developed into a rare cancer – acral lentiginous subungual melanoma. It’s a form of skin cancer that appears on the palms of the hands, the soles of the feet or under the nails.

Courtney was diagnosed in July and since her shock diagnosis she’s had to have four surgeries.

“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 how many kids bite their nails it’s crazy it came to that.”

Courtney says after she bit her nail off four years ago, she became self-conscious.

“My hand was just constantly in a fist because I didn’t want anyone to see it – not even my parents. I always had fake nails to hide it because it was so black. It was like paper whenever it grew back.

“I got a bit freaked out when my skin started to go black so I showed them [people] for the first time this year.”

Courtney – who works as a part-time receptionist – went to the doctor because her skin started turning black, but she says that at the time it was purely for cosmetic reasons.

Her GP referred her to a plastic surgeon.

“I saw two plastic surgeons, and they were considering removing 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.”

Courtney had to wait six week for the results.

“The results came back uncertain so the surgeons wanted to be safe and remove the whole nail bed and any blackness.”

But they did more tests and when those results came back, she was told that it was a malignant melanoma which was very rare, especially for someone her age.

“I was obviously shocked, I couldn't believe it at all. My mom 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.

“I had a panic attack at work, I read the word ‘amputation’ and ran outside. I couldn’t breathe, I freaked out, we’d never even spoken about amputation.”

The surgeon decided to first perform a third surgery, creating a wider incision in Courtney’s thumb to remove any more malignant cells.

“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.

But that operation only confirmed the need to amputate.

“Because it [the cancer] had started to travel, the only option left was amputation but this time I was much more prepared for that news.”

The student has also had to defer her studies at Griffiths University in order to recover.

“I’m supposed to graduate next year but now it won’t be until the year after.”

Courtney is still waiting for the set of results from her latest surgery. If it’s clear, the surgeon will monitor her for the next five years.

She says she wanted to share her story to help people being bullied.

“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.”