Your bones ache, you are tired, and you've lost weight without dieting. Multiple Myeloma starts with vague symptoms as specific white blood cells, called plasma cells begin to multiply uncontrollably. Discover the important symptoms to watch for and the tests your doctor can use to diagnose this cancer. While there is no cure, treatments manage symptoms and extend life.
What is Multiple Myeloma?
Cancer develops when cells grow, dividing and multiplying enough to crowd organs, form tumors and sequester nutrients by changing cell behavior. In Multiple Myeloma, a specific type of white blood cell becomes cancerous. As the cancerous plasma cells crowd bone marrow, they reduce the number of available healthy cells and stop producing the correct antibodies. As the diseased cells build up, they release bone dissolving chemicals, creating weak spots, called lytic lesions.
Though uncommon, Multiple Myeloma is the second most common blood-borne cancer, with Hodgkins lymphoma being most common. American Society of Clinical Oncologists predicted approximately 30,300 adults would die from this cancer during 2016. Science has not discovered this cancer's causes, but some experts believe radiation exposure may play a role. Studies have suggested that workers in the oil industry and related fields may face a higher risk of developing the illness.
Signs and Symptoms
Since this is a blood cancer, the first signs may not be the telltale lump of breast cancer or the strange moles of melanoma. Your first symptoms can include fatigue, aching bones, extreme thirst, frequent urination or unexplained weight loss. These symptoms may signal a minor health issue, but consider seeing your doctor if you also have infections or broken bones as this disease prevents new bone cell growth. However, pay attention to extreme thirst and frequent urination. The excess proteins and abnormal antibodies circulating in your blood collect in the kidneys and can cause blockages. Excess calcium in the blood also forms crystals in the kidneys. When fatigue, pain and thirst accompany unexplained weight loss you should see your doctor.
Tests and Diagnosis
Your doctor will run tests if you are over 65, male and have a family history that includes this cancer. Doctors order blood tests to check specific protein and antibody levels, and laboratories perform complete blood counts to check the number of white cells, red blood cells and platelets. While checking your calcium levels the lab also measures creatinine to evaluate your kidney function. You may have urine tests measuring a protein called “Bence-Jones” that can clog your kidneys and X-rays to check for thinning bones. In some cases, your doctor may order bone marrow testing to see if myeloma cells have overwhelmed your marrow.
If tests reveal this illness, doctors then determine how much the disease has grown and spread, describing the results as stages. The doctor first notes whether your disease produces symptoms, represented by the mnemonic CRAB (calcium levels, renal problems, anemia and bone lesions). Treatment eases symptoms, eliminates myeloma cells and strives to preserve your quality of life. Doctors may employ chemotherapy, steroids and radiation therapy to treat the cancer, and prescribe antibiotics, pain medications to control symptoms and manage treatment side effects. However, your overall health, symptoms and your cancer's stage influence your treatment plan.
As is true with the common cold, doctors cannot cure Myelomas. Fortunately, they can prescribe medications that manage pain, slow bone loss and ease damage to internal organs.