Buttoning up a shirt can be a time-consuming thing for Peggy Waters.
"Especially little buttons," she explained while holding a red top. "I love the color of this thing, but I find I'm not wearing it very much because of this!"
It's been six years since her left thumbnail was removed, but seemingly simple tasks still serve as reminders of how useful that nail used to be.
The Longview, Washington, woman first noticed something odd several years ago when her left thumbnail suddenly had a crack down the middle. Not from an injury, she recalled, but that it just happened.
She put a bandage on it, and months later, during a skin checkup with a dermatologist, casually mentioned something was different with her thumb.
That doctor referred her to see one of the few dermatologists in the area who specializes in nails. A biopsy revealed something serious.
"It came back as melanoma under my thumbnail, and the nail was removed about a month later," Waters said.
It was all a surprise to her, that something so innocent looking, could pose a threat to her health.
"I had never heard of anything growing under your thumbnail, except fungus," she said.
Dr. Phoebe Rich is a Portland dermatologist who has been treating patients will nail diseases for nearly three decades. Waters is one of her patients who continues to return for check-ups.
"About 50 percent of the patients that we see, that walk into our clinic with a nail problem, are fungal,” Rich explained. “And 50 percent are something entirely different, including all sorts of different cancers."
Sun exposure is known to play a role in some skin cancers, but there is no clear connection to melanoma in nails. Rich said there can be a correlation, though, when it comes to a person's skin color.
"The darker your pigmentation, the more likely you are to have pigmented bands in the nails, both malignant and benign," she said.
When looking at nails to check for melanoma or pigments, Rich said a dark line or stripe can be a warning sign. That dark line will run from the back to the end of the nail.
"The bad ones generally widen over time and darken over time,” she said. “And that's a huge red flag, and definitely they should seek medical attention."
Singer Bob Marley died in 1981 at the age of 36 after what was initially thought to be a bruise from a soccer injury turned out to be a cancerous melanoma under a toenail.The cancer then spread to other parts of his body.
"Melanomas can be very dangerous” Rich added. “They are also virtually 100 percent curable if you get them early. And they can be 100 percent fatal if you totally ignore them."
Rich noted that cases like Marley's are rare, but still warned of the danger.
"Fortunately, though, most of the pigmented bands that we see in nails are benign," she said. "A fairly small percentage of them are melanomas, but the ones that are melanomas we certainly don't want to miss."
For Waters, prepping a meal may feel a little different these days, without that thumbnail. When chopping a round fruit or vegetable, it is harder for her to get a grip.
"Sometimes I have to really pay attention to grasp in such a way that my thumb is out of the way," she explained.
She said the minor nuisance, though, is no big deal, knowing that it didn't cost her life. She also offered advice for others to pay attention to their bodies.
"What I regret most, and what I'm hoping that anybody who hears this will take to heart - is that if there is something very strange going on with anywhere on your body, get it checked."
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