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Woman warns about nail change that alerted her to lung cancer

After posting a photo of her strange fingernails online, a woman was urged to see a doctor. The diagnosis: cancer.
Healthy fingernails
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/ Source: TODAY

Changes in fingernails can alert you to all sorts of health issues, including lung cancer, as a British woman recently found out when she became alarmed by her symptoms.

Jean Williams Taylor of Wigan, England, posted a photo of her curved fingernail — growing downward at a sharp angle instead of straight out from the nail bed — asking if anyone had seen anything similar. A number of people responded advising her to seek medical care.

“I was urged to go to the doctor. A tad extreme I thought,” she wrote in a follow-up post on Facebook on Tuesday.

Taylor was then rushed for blood tests and a chest X-ray, she noted. Two days later, she was directed to go for a CT scan, and then a PET scan and more blood tests. That led to a breathing test, a heart scan, an MRI and a lung biopsy.

“After a gruelling (sic) 2 weeks, yesterday I got my results.......Cancer in both my lungs !!!!” Taylor wrote, adding she had no idea curved fingernails could be a symptom of lung disease. “Hope this post can help someone else in the early stages of cancer.”

Taylor did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

The nail condition, called clubbing of the fingers or toes, can indeed signal lung trouble, said Dr. Phoebe Rich, director of the Nail Disorders Clinic at Oregon Health and Science University.

“It is a pretty characteristic finding and a good diagnostic clue to look at the lungs,” Rich told TODAY. “It probably has something to do with oxygenation of the tips of the digits, although there’s really no literature that explains it with 100 percent certainty.”

Clubbing often occurs in heart and lung diseases that reduce the amount of oxygen in the blood, the U.S. National Library of Medicine noted. Lung cancer is the most common cause, although congenital heart defects, chronic lung infections, celiac disease, liver disease, Graves' disease and other conditions can also cause it.

“Not everybody with lung issues will get this, but if you have this, there’s a good possibility that you have a lung problem,” Rich said. “In other words, lots of people have lung cancer and don’t have this.”

What to look for:

In clubbing, the nail may curve downward so it looks like the round part of an upside-down spoon, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) noted.

Usually, all of the nails are involved, not just one, Rich said. The condition affects fingernails more commonly than toenails, but she has seen it in both types.

The last section of the finger may also appear large or bulging. The curved nails can develop quickly and may return to normal quickly when the cause of the health problem is treated, NIH added.

All doctors, including primary care doctors, should be able to recognize the symptoms, not just nail specialists, Rich said. If you have clubbed nails, your doctor may order a chest X-ray and look for pulmonary problems.

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