A student was biting her nails so much she had to have her thumb amputated after developing a rare form of skin cancer.
Courtney Whithorn, now 20, started the nervous habit after being bullied at school, which led to her biting her thumb nail clean off in 2014.
Despite ‘freaking out’ when her thumb started to turn black, the embarrassed, then teen, kept it hidden from her family and friends by keeping her hands in a fist and wearing fake nails for four years.
But the psychology student had caused such major trauma to her nail bed that it developed into a rare cancer type named acral lentiginous subungual melanoma.
Courtney, originally from Newton Aycliffe, Co Durham, who 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.’ 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 it completely removed.
She continued: ‘When you think about it how many kids bite their nails it’s crazy it came to that.
‘I got a bit freaked out when my skin started to go black so I showed them for the first time this year.’
She added: ‘I can’t even explain how self-conscious I was. When the nail grew out it was like paper.’
She went to a doctor for cosmetic reasons and was referred to a plastic surgeon who suggested removing the nail bed to get rid of the black.
But before the first surgery, the doctor could tell something was wrong and did a biopsy.
She continued: ‘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 from above the knuckle.
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.’
She explained: ‘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.’
The student has also had to defer her studies at Griffiths University to recover.
Courtney is still waiting for the results from her surgery and the surgeon will keep an eye on it for the next five years with regular scans.
She continued: ‘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.’ 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 realise I’d bitten my whole thumb nail off until I saw how much blood was on my hand.’
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. She now wants to share her story to raise awareness: ‘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.’