Health Stories

Biting my nails gave me cancer

WARNING: Graphic images.

Courtney didn’t realise her habit could lead to a horror diagnosis…

Here, Courtney Whithorn, 20, tells the story in her own words.

Staring at the blood dripping down my hand I realised with horror what I’d done.

I’ve bitten off my whole thumb nail, I thought. I’d developed a bad habit of anxiously biting my nails after years of bullying, and now I’d gone and done this. I’ll have to keep it hidden, I panicked.

If the people at school saw that I’d chewed off my whole thumbnail, the bullying would only get worse.

So I used fake nails to cover it and always clenched my hand in a fist, even hiding it from my parents. When it turned black, that made me even more self-conscious.

By year 11, nail biting had become a sort of coping mechanism for me.

before diagnosis
Me before the cancer. I’m thankful they caught it just in time (Credit: Caters)

Sometimes I didn’t even know I was doing it. And I was chewing so often, I’d lost some of the feeling in my fingers.

After what I’d done to my thumb, the nail never looked the same again. It only grew on one side and remained black.

Then four years later, the skin around my nail started to turn black as well. I freaked out and showed my family for the first time.

Going to visit the doctor, I was referred to a plastic surgeon.

‘We’ll remove your nail bed and put a skin graft over it to get rid of the black,’ the surgeon explained. ‘Great!’ I exclaimed, happy I was finally going to look normal.

But before my surgery, the doctor told me he suspected something more serious was going on.

couple photo
Tyson has been my rock (Credit: Caters)

Thinking it could be cancerous, he wanted to do a biopsy. I was so nervous, and to make matters worse, the results came back as ‘uncertain’.

‘We’ll have to remove your whole nail bed to give us more tissue for another biopsy,’ he explained.

I knew it was better to be safe than sorry. But when the next set of results came back it was bad news.

‘It’s malignant,’ the doctor explained to me and Mum. ‘You’ve got acral lentiginous subungual melanoma.’

It’s a rare type of cancer, where the damage to my nail bed had likely created dangerous cells. Mum burst into tears.

Stunned, the only thing going around my head was, I’ve done this to myself.

I thought of all the other people I knew who bit their nails and had no idea it could lead to cancer.

Thankfully, a scan of the inside of my thumb showed no more cancerous cells. But a week later, I was at work as a part-time receptionist when I got a text from the plastic surgeon.

The protocol for this rare melanoma is amputation, it read.

Seeing the word ‘amputation’ I ran outside, barely able to breathe.

Following me, my boss tried to calm me down, then my mum had to come and get me.

‘What have I done?’ I sobbed to her.

removed thumb
My thumb was removed just above the knuckle. (Credit: Caters)

The next day, I went to see a melanoma specialist who agreed that amputation was necessary.

‘If we see anything cancerous then we’ll have to take the whole thumb,’ I was told, before I was wheeled into theatre.

Coming round, I was told I still had my thumb and I was so happy. But two lymph nodes had been taken out for them to test whether or not the cancer had spread.

‘We’ve found more cancerous cells,’ the doctor explained. ‘It’s not spread too far yet but it is there.’

He explained it had been caught on the cusp of it going to the rest of my body – the timing had been everything.

‘As the cancer has started to travel, the only option left now is amputation,’ he told me.

I was much more prepared for that news the second time around but it was still so upsetting.

The nail started to turn black (Credit: Caters)
nail biting
My nail bed was removed (Credit: Caters)

In July my thumb was removed from just above the knuckle.

I’ll need regular blood tests and scans over the next five years to make sure the cancer doesn’t come back.

If it does, they’ll just have to keep cutting away more until it’s gone for good.

There’s not enough research to say what the survival rate is or what the likelihood of it coming back is because they don’t know much about it.

I’ve had to defer uni for a year because I can’t write.

A positive thing that has come of it all has been my amazing boyfriend, Tyson Donnelly, 20.

Without Tyson and my family, I honestly don’t know how I would have got through.

Having someone to talk to is important through something like this. Alone you’ll implode. I want young people to read my story and believe in themselves.

Some people have asked me who my biggest hero is or my biggest influencer and now I say me.

Be your own person and be who you need to be.

Read more in this week’s issue of that’s life, on sale now.

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