Anyone who's ever had (or still has) a nail-biting habit knows how hard it is to quit the compulsive behavior. From wearing bitter-tasting nail polish to keeping your hands covered by gloves, there are many techniques that nail biters try, only to find that the often-mindless urge is just too strong. If there's anything that can motivate a change, however, it's an especially scary cautionary tale, and this one that just came out of Australia — in which a young woman's nail-biting habit led to skin cancer and the eventual amputation of her thumb — is enough to encourage anyone to keep their fingers out of their mouth.
Courtney Whithorn, a 20-year-old student, had been biting her nails for years as a response to stress, The Sun reports. She went especially hard on her right thumbnail, which at one point she bit completely off. After what little nail grew back (in its new paper-thin texture), Whithorn says she noticed the nail plate area turning black. It was at that point that she sought medical treatment for cosmetic reasons.
"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 color; I was happy with that," Whithorn tells The Sun. "But before my first surgery to remove the nail bed, the doctors could tell something was wrong and decided to do a biopsy."
After the biopsy and several additional tests, doctors determined that Whithorn had a type of skin cancer called acral lentiginous subungual melanoma — and they linked it to the damage she had done by biting her nails. Doctors performed two surgeries: one to remove her nail bed as originally planned, and another to ensure that all malignant cells were out. They followed up the procedures with a PET scan and removal of two lymph nodes to make sure the melanoma hadn't spread.
"The pigmentation from my thumb had traveled, so it was dark, but none of the malignant cells had traveled yet," Whithorn says of the lymph-node results, explaining that they indicated the cancer was on the cusp of spreading. "Because it had started to travel, the only option was amputation."
Two weeks ago, Whithorn's thumb was surgically removed above the knuckle, and she will have to get regular PET scans and blood tests for the next five years to check for a reoccurrence of the cancerous cells.