Student's thumb amputated after skin cancer found after biting her nails

You might want to think twice about the next time you bite your nails after reading this story.

A student from Australia had to have her thumb amputated after doctors diagnosed her with skin cancer following a nail-biting incident. 

Courtney Whithorn, 20, had developed a nail-biting habit while she was at school. According to an interview with The Mirror, her thumb started to turn black after she bit the entire nail off, but she kept it hidden from friends and family for four years. 

She continued to the publication, "I didn't even know I was biting my nails sometimes - it just happened. I sort of lost the feeling because I was doing it that often."

The woman decided to consult a plastic surgeon when the doctor diagnosed her with acral lentiginous subungual melanoma, a rare form of skin cancer. "When you think about it how many kids bite their nails it's crazy it came to that," she explained.

RELATED: Skin problems to watch out for 

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10 strange skin problems that may signal a disease

You're breaking out like crazy

Adult acne is so common (here’s why—and how best to treat it), but when it’s a fairly new development, pay attention. Skin changes like acne can be a sign of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal imbalance that affects 10 million women worldwide. When a woman’s body makes excess “male” hormones called androgens, it’s often accompanied by an increase in acne. Your doctor may suspect PCOS if you have acne along with irregular periods or acne that flares up just before your period, says Dr. Reynolds.

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You notice lots of skin tags popping up

A few of these skin growths here or there is normal, but numerous skin tags that begin popping up could indicate type 2 diabetes. They’re spurred on by insulin-like growth factor 1, a protein involved in diabetes that stimulates skin overgrowth, says Rachel Reynolds, MD, a dermatologist with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Other signs of type 2 include increased thirst, slow healing wounds, and increased hunger. Here are more silent symptoms of diabetes you might be missing.

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You've developed a weird rash

Something benign like new laundry detergent or metal buttons on your pants can be behind a new rash, but so can tick bites. Five different types of tick diseases cause telltale skin rashes, from the bullseye of Lyme and STARI (southern tick-associated rash illness) to small pink spots dotting wrists, forearms, and ankles that are associated with Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Watch out for such skin changes if you’ve been camping, hiking, or spending time outdoors in known tick areas. Find a tick attached to you? Here’s how to safely remove it.

You have a weird rash, Part II

Starting a new medication always comes with potential reactions. One serious problem: an allergy called “drug reaction with eosinophilia and systemic symptoms” or DRESS syndrome, a potentially life-threatening condition marked by an inflammation of the liver, heart, and lungs, says dermatologist Cindy Owen in a press release from the American Academy of Dermatology. Even more confusing: This rash can appear two to eight weeks after starting the med. Watch out if you have a rash accompanied by fever or swelling of lymph nodes.

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You're so, so itchy

If you have dry skin—especially in the winter months—you may bet used to feeling itchy. But when a good moisturizer provides no relief, it could be something more serious than dry skin. Itchiness can be caused by some cancers like leukemia and lymphoma, as well as liver disease and kidney failure. If itching is all over your body, is severe, comes out of nowhere, or is so bad you’re losing sleep because you’re so uncomfortable, talk to your doctor, says Dr. Reynolds. Itchiness with night sweats, fevers, and unexplained weight loss are other red flag symptoms, she says. For run of the mill itchy skin, try these home remedies.

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There are tender red bumps under your skin

While the gut and skin may not seem all that connected, they are—check out these 21 secrets your gut is trying to tell you. Inflammatory conditions like irritable bowel disease (IBD) can show up on your skin. Painful red nodules may appear on your legs; they’ll also feel deep in the surface of the skin, explains Dr. Reynolds. The condition is called erythema nodosum and may appear during a flare-up of symptoms, such as persistent diarrhea or bloody stool. Blood in your poop may sound frightening, but it’s one of those scary health symptoms that can turn out to be harmless.

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Your skin is sweaty and ruddy

Unless you’re relaxing in a sauna or living the tropics, this may be a sign of an overactive thyroid. In people who have hyperthyroidism, their metabolism is revved up. This can translate to being hot and flushed (particularly when no one else in the room is). Your doctor should question you about other symptoms that could signal thyroid dysfunction, like weight loss or difficulty sleeping. Here’s how to know when to get your thyroid levels checked.

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Your lower legs are swollen and red

When someone is suffering from congestive heart failure, their weakened heart struggles to keep the blood moving against the pull of gravity. As a result, the blood can pool in your legs, explains Dr. High. Seeing deep lines after taking off your socks is another sign, he says. That said, congestive heart failure is most likely to affect the elderly; if you’re a young person and have sock lines, your socks just might be too small. (Sounds funny, but it’s true!) Catch the early signs of heart failure.

You have yellow bumps underneath your skin

When seen on joints, hands, feet, and glutes, yellow bumps may be fat buildup under the skin. Called xanthomas, these bumps are a sign that your cholesterol or other blood fats are too high; they can also indicate diabetes, pancreatitis, and even some cancers.

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Think of the obvious first

Though skin problems can be a sign of a more serious illness, when saddled with dry skin or itchiness, don’t jump to a worst-case scenario, says Dr. High. If you’re itchy, first try a moisturizer. If you get hives, take an antihistamine or try a hydrocortisone cream. Then if the problem doesn’t clear up quickly, it may be time to see your doctor.

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Since her initial diagnosis in July, Whithorn has had to have four surgeries. The last operation removed her thumb completely. 

"When I found out that biting my nail off was the cause of the cancer it shattered me," she said.  "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."

RELATED: Things in your home that cause cancer 

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Things in your home that can cause cancer
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Things in your home that can cause cancer

Your garden

Dioxin is a carcinogen that forms as a chemical byproduct and ends up in our soil and water. It's in the dust on shelves, the dirt on floors, and the residue on vegetables. Your risk of cancer from dioxin exposure may be greater than one in one-thousand, says clean-living guru, Sophia Ryann Gushée.

What can you do?

Wear gloves when working in the garden, and always wash up before heading inside. Additionally, avoid backyard burning of household trash.

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Your big, comfy couch

Your favorite sofa could be killing you, and not just because it lures you away from activity: Many sofas, mattresses, and other cushioned furniture are treated with TDCIPP, a flame retardant known to cause cancer (i.e., a carcinogen). TDCIPP was used so frequently prior to 2013 that a study out of Duke University found it in the blood of everyone they tested. It's also one of ten chemicals most frequently found in household dust, according to this study.

What can you do?

Consider replacing cushioned furniture you purchased prior to 2013, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council—and check furniture labels on any purchases.

And while you're at it, make sure you aren't around any of these other causes of cancer.

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Your curtains and carpets

Cadmium is a carcinogenic byproduct of cigarette smoke. If you smoke in your house, cadmium and other cigarette smoke by-products may be lurking, especially on soft surfaces such as curtains and carpet—even long after the smell of smoke is gone. There's even such a thing as third-hand smoke and it's resistant to even the strongest cleaning products. Here's where you can learn more about third-hand smoke and its dangers.

What can you do?

Quit smoking—here are 23 tips to kick start kicking the habit—and never allow smoking in your home.

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Your leather recliner

Chromium (VI) is a known carcinogen found in tanned leather, wood furniture, certain dyes and pigments used in textiles, and cement. To give you an idea of the prevalence of chromium VI, one study out of Denmark found that almost half of imported leather shoes and sandals contained some level of the carcinogen.

What can you do?

As with TCIPP, pay attention to labeling. And don't be shy about asking questions of your furniture salesperson.

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Your old fridge

According to cancer.org, carcinogenic PCBs can turn up in old appliances, fluorescent lighting fixtures, and electrical transformers. While no longer commercially produced in the United States, PCBs are still manufactured and used in developing countries, and of all PCBs ever produced, up to 70 percent are still in the environment. Diet is another major source of exposure, according to Gushée.

What can you do?

Get rid of those old appliances and fluorescent light fixtures. Pay attention to advisories regarding PCB-contaminated fish and fish-eating wildlife.

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Your cleaning products

Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen found at home in food, cosmetics, a variety of cleaning products (such as dishwashing liquids, fabric softeners, and carpet cleaners), paint, foam insulation, and on permanent press fabrics. In addition, you can be exposed by breathing smoke from gas cookers and open fireplaces.

What can you do?

Here is a list of household products that contain formaldehyde, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Choose your cleaning products carefully—here are some chemical-free ways to clean your home. Also, be sure to ventilate your cooking areas.

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Your closets

The dry-cleaning chemical perchloroethylene (tetrachloroethylene or "perc") is a carcinogen that can build up wherever you store your dry-cleaned clothes. It's also found in spot removers, shoe polish, and wood cleaners.

What can you do?

Wear gloves when polishing your shoes and cleaning wood. If you dry-clean your clothing, try to find a dry-cleaner who doesn't use perc. And check out the times you can feel free to ignore the dry-clean only label.

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Your vinyl flooring and miniblinds

Phthalates are suspected of causing cancer and may adversely affect human reproduction or development. They're found in vinyl flooring, shower curtains, synthetic leather, miniblinds, wallpaper, and anything made with PVC vinyl. They're also found in food packaged in plastic.

What can you do?

Stay away from products made with PVC vinyl. Look for products that are labeled as phthalate-free. Toss plastic toys made before 2008, according to mindbodygreen.com, and switch to glass and stainless containers and bottles. And reconsider your use of plastic wraps and food containers.

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Your favorite rice and chicken dinner

Everyone knows arsenic is poisonous, but in smaller doses, it's also carcinogenic. Yet you can find it in foods you probably eat regularly—including chicken, rice, and certain fruit juices, as well as in degreasing products, dyes, furniture wax, glues, lubricants, nylon, and paints.

What can you do?

Serve only organic chicken, and follow these rice-related guidelines issued by Consumer Reports. Check the labels on your household products; people following a gluten-free diet may be at particular risk of arsenic exposure.

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Your insulation

Asbestos has been out of favor for decades, thankfully, but you can still find it in the insulation of older homes. As the insulation eventually deteriorates, asbestos fibers become airborne. Since asbestos fibers stick to clothing and shoes, workers exposed to asbestos on the job can also bring asbestos into their homes.

What can you do?

Follow these guidelines to reduce asbestos exposure in your home.

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Your styrofoam cups

Styrene is a known carcinogen widely used in the manufacturing of polystyrene plastics, which can be made into foam and rigid plastic products such as cups, plates, trays, utensils, packaging, and packing peanuts. Styrene may leach into your hot coffee or soup if you're using styrofoam containers. It's also present in cigarette smoke and in all of these home maintenance, automotive, and crafting productsWhat can you do? Avoid using styrofoam to hold hot foods and liquids, and read your product labels carefully. Find out the 12 foods you should never microwave.  

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Your library books

According to the Library of Congress and other government sources, medical supplies, library books, and museum artifacts may all be sterilized or fumigated with ethylene oxide, which is a known carcinogen. What can you do? Mostly a problem for people who work with the chemical, you can minimize exposure by not bringing items into your house that have been exposed to ethylene oxide.

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Your weedkiller

No one likes weeds, but if you decide to decimate them using herbicides such as Roundup, which contains the carcinogen glyphosate, you may be raising your risk for cancer.

What can you do?

Make a practice of carefully reading the labels on your weedkillers. And consider using some of these natural weed killers that don't contain dangerous chemicals.

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Your bug spray

Pantry pests and other creepy crawlies can carry disease. But if you eliminate them using chemical pesticides, you're increasing your risk of cancer. Chemical pesticides include those that you use on your pets, such as flea collars and tick-repellant.

What can you do?

Seek out less-toxic pesticide alternatives—or make your own, like this natural tick repellent that works.

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Your granite counter

Radon is formed naturally from the radioactive decay of uranium in rocks and soil. It raises the risk of lung cancer—especially if you also smoke, says Ashley Sumrall, MD, FACP, a Charlotte-based oncologist. If you live in an area where the amount of uranium and radium in rocks is high, you can be exposed to radon through cracks in your foundation. You can also be exposed to radon if you have a granite countertops.

What can you do?

If you live in an area with high levels of uranium and radium, or if you have granite countertops, consider having your home's radon levels measured. Here's what you need to know about radon testing.

Next, find out the causes of cancer that might surprise you.

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