A student had to have her thumb amputated after developing a rare form of cancer thought to be caused by biting her nails.
Courtney Whithorn started biting her nails as a nervous habit after being bullied at school and in 2014, it became so bad she bit her thumbnail completely off.
The 20-year-old was so ‘freaked out’ when her thumb started to turn black but kept it hidden from her friends and family for four years.
After years of being embarrassed by her thumb, Courtney decided to go for plastic surgery, only for doctors to discover she had acral lentiginous subungual melanoma, a rare form of cancer.
Since her diagnosis in July, the psychology student has undergone four surgeries, with the most recent seeing her digit being completely removed.
Courtney, who was originally from Newton Aycliffe in County Durham before moving to the Gold Coast in Australia, 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.
But when Courtney went to the doctors, she was referred to a plastic surgeon who offered her a skin graft:
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 having her nail bed removed, a detailed scan found no more cancerous cells inside her thumb, however just weeks later specialists in Sydney told Courtney’s surgeon that the protocol for her form of melanoma is amputation.
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.
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However, Courtney was overjoyed when she woke up from the operation to find she still had her full thumb:
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.
Unfortunately, Courtney faced another blow when she realised she would be unable to write without her thumb, forcing her to defer her studies at Griffiths University to recover.
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.
Now, Courtney is sharing her story to show the effects that bullying can have on other people.
The 20-year-old said:
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.
If you’ve been affected by bullying, and want to speak to someone in confidence, contact Bullying UK (part of Family Lives) on 0808 800 2222. The helpline service is open 9am – 9pm, Monday to Friday and 10am – 3pm Saturday and Sunday.
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