We all know that nail biting is a terrible habit and one that’s pretty off-putting to witness, especially when you think about all the germs you can pick up as you go throughout the day.
When you first see pictures of Australian woman Courtney Whithorn now, it’s hard to imagine her being a nervous person. She smiles radiantly and looks beautiful. But as a high school student, Whithorn was the target of vicious bullying, which sapped her self-confidence and led her to nail biting as a way of dealing with the pressure.
Whithorn’s nervous habit focused on her right thumbnail, and before long, the nail was completely gone and she was biting the nail bed. From a simple way of dealing with fear of her bullies, the habit would spiral out of control to become life threatening.
“Rumors 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,” Whithorn told The Daily Mail.
Of all the trauma from that period of her life, perhaps the worst was that she kept the increasingly painful thumb, which was turning necrotic, from her friends and family. “I bit the nail off and was obviously very self-conscious of how black it was,” Whithorn said to the Mail. “My hand was just constantly in a fist because I didn’t want anyone to see it—not even my parents.”
The only thing that kept her going was the intervention of a fellow student, Tyson Donnelly, who without knowing Whithorn took a stand against the bullies. One day at school when he heard them carrying on, he simply approached and told them to shut up. After confronting the bullies, a grateful Whithorn remembers that “he took me to sit with him and that’s sort of how we met. We’ve been together since then so that’s one good thing to come out of it.”
Though things got a lot better after Whithorn and Donnelly started seeing each other, the damage from years of biting had been done. Her entire thumb was clearly in such a dire state that she showed it to her parents and went to see the doctor. They referred her to plastic surgeons, who realized that there was a bigger problem than a missing nail.
After a biopsy, they discovered something that shocked the teenager: cancer.
She began biting her nails after being bullied at school.
“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.” Whithorn and her mother were distraught at the news. As she told the Mail, “When I found out that biting my nail off was the cause of the cancer it shattered me.”
The doctors came back to her with dire news—her whole thumb would need to be amputated to prevent the cancer from spreading. Not much is known about the kind of skin cancer Whithorn had contracted, called “acral lentiginous subungual melanoma.”
After multiple surgeries that ended in amputation, Whithorn still doesn’t know what her fate is. “There’s not enough research to say what the survival rate is or what the likelihood of it coming back is,” she said to the Mail. “Because we just don’t know much about it. I’ve just cried every time it’s been brought up.”
For now, Whithorn is in remission, has managed to finish her studies at Griffiths University in Queensland, and now has a job at Robina Hospital on the Gold Coast.
As for her advice for other nail biters and victims of bullying, “if I could say anything it would be just stand up for yourself.” While her family and boyfriend were invaluable in the recovery process, Whithorn emphasizes “be your own person and be who you need to be.”