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Woman's manicure cut turns into rare nail cancer due to HPV

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In November 2021, Grace Garcia visited a new nail salon to get her nails done. The manicurist cut her cuticle and it bled a little. The cut never fully healed and she later developed a wart. She learned that she had nail cancer caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), a rare phenomenon.

“She probably used the tool on a previous person. No idea,” Garcia, 50, of San Gabriel, Calif., told “It sprouted, whatever it was in my hand. … He showed up. It looked like a wart, and I thought, ‘What the hell is that?’”

A manicure leads to a problem of months

Just before Thanksgiving 2021, Garcia visited a nail salon to get her nails done. She has been doing her nails for about 20 years and has been unable to make an appointment at her usual location. So, she booked one at a spa near her place of work, which she chose because it looked “chic,” she recalled. During the manicure, the manicurist grazed Garcia’s cuticle on her right ring finger.

cancer on a finger
When Grace Garcia’s nail cut wouldn’t heal, she knew something was wrong. She continued to visit doctors until she received a proper diagnosis and treatment.Grace Garcia

“She cut me, and the cut was not just a normal cuticle cut. It cut me deep and it was one of the first times this happened to me”, explains Garcia. “I’ve been doing (my nails) for years and years and years. I was upset.” Garcia doesn’t remember if she saw the manicurist open unused tools, something that still haunts her.

“I don’t remember that,” she says. “It’s always a big show when they get the tools and open the package, and I don’t remember that – and I should have.”

When he returned home, he rubbed the cut with antibiotic ointment. After a few days, she didn’t get better and she went back to the salon to alert them of the employee’s mistake.

“I got upset and went back and told them the lady cut me and my finger is still bothering me,” says Garcia. “They said, ‘Oh, we fired her (after) a lot of complaints.’ That’s it.

Worried that the cut was not healing properly, she went to the doctor, who prescribed an antibiotic for her finger.

“It never got better, but it wasn’t bad. It was weird,” she says.

Her finger was sensitive. If she accidentally hit something, it hurt. Eventually, it healed, but a bump that was darker in color than the rest of her skin appeared in its place.

Garcia visited his doctor and asked about it again. They thought it was a “writing callus,” but she didn’t really use her ring finger while writing, she recalls. Her doctor recommended watching.

When she saw her gynecologist in April 2022 — five months after her nail appointment — she gave the doctor the finger, who suggested that Garcia see a dermatologist.

The dermatologist also advised to keep an eye out. The bump turned from a bruise to more of an open sore, and eventually a wart developed. So Garcia went back to her primary care doctor and visited another dermatologist. She underwent a biopsy.

“I knew it wasn’t good,” she says.

cancer on a finger
Once the manicurist cut the nail, it never felt right again. It wasn’t an open wound, but it had developed a bulge like a callus and darkened. It was painful to touch.Grace Garcia

Nail cancer caused by HPV

Nail cancers remain uncommon, and most of them are melanomas, says Dr. Teo Soleymani, a UCLA Health dermatologist who treated Garcia. In Garcia’s case, she had squamous cell carcinoma, a common skin cancer that is less aggressive than melanoma. But the cause of it, HPV, is uncommon.

“It is very rare for several reasons. Generally speaking, strains that cause cancer from an HPV standpoint tend to be more sexually transmitted,” Soleymani told “In Grace’s case, she had an injury, which became the gateway. So that thick skin that we have on our hands and feet that acts as a natural barrier against infections and things like that was gone, and the virus was able to infect her skin.”

Garcia’s cancer developed rapidly.

“Hers was interesting because her timeline was about three months, which is much less than squamous cell carcinoma,” explains Soleymani. “It also fits that she had a high-risk strain of HPV that bodes well, not just a benign cut.”

Thanks to her determination though, she met Soleymani early on and was diagnosed with stage 1 cancer.

“Your results are entirely dictated by how early you detect them, and they are often completely curable,” says Soleymani. “Her persistence, not only did she get a great result, she probably saved herself from having her finger amputated.”

Soleymani performed Mohs surgery on her, a procedure that allows doctors to see “100% of the edge” of the cancer. This means doctors can remove all of the cancer, providing a “high cure rate” without removing too much skin.

“Because we were able to verify 100% of the margin with the Mohs micrographic technique, it doesn’t need radiation,” says Soleymani. “She does not need any further treatment.”

The most common nail cancers seen by dermatologists are melanomas, which usually present as a black or dark brown band across the nail. If people have squamous cell carcinomas of the nail, they look like a hemorrhagic mass.

“Anytime you have growth that doesn’t go away in about four weeks, that’s our cue,” says Soleymani. “You should see your dermatologist.”

He recommends that everyone get the HPV vaccine to prevent the development of HPV-related cancers.

“The vaccine has been shown in many emerging studies over the last couple of years to not only reduce the incidence of common things like warts and obviously cervical cancer, but also reduce the risk and incidence of skin diseases. HPV-related cancer,” he says.

cancer on a finger
The cut looked like a bump for the most part, but then it turned into what looked like a wart. Grace Garcia suspected something was wrong and she was right – she had developed rare nail cancer.Grace Garcia

life after cancer

Although Garcia’s nail looks normal, she still feels traumatized.

“We consider the manicure something special,” she says. “And it happens.”

Garcia has to see her dermatologist for regular skin cancer checkups. She feels it’s important to talk about her experience to raise awareness and encourage people who do manicures and pedicures to be sure to watch manicures using new tools. She also urges people to be persistent if something seems wrong with their health.

“I struggled from day one because I knew something was wrong,” says Garcia.