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Understanding Myeloma

October 3, 2019
Published in: Cancer

Closeup of a microscope

Nearly 31,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with myeloma each year. However, most of us may be unfamiliar with this type of cancer. Although somewhat rare, it's important to understand what myeloma is, especially for people at increased risk. Learn what symptoms you should be aware of, who is at higher risk, and what treatment options are available.

Taking a blood sample in a labMyeloma is cancer that affects the plasma cells in bone marrow, a soft fatty material inside our bones. Bone marrow is an essential part of the immune system which helps ward off infection and disease. Bone marrow also produces stem cells. Stem cells are the early phase of cell that can transform into a specialized cell type. Bone marrow stem cells produce red blood cells that carry oxygen to every cell in the body, platelets that help the blood clot to control bleeding, and white blood cells that fight infection.

Myeloma attacks the plasma cells in white blood cells. Plasma cells created antibodies that circulate in the blood and attack viruses, bacteria, and other harmful infections. Cancer in the bone marrow increases abnormal plasma cells which form tumors in the bone marrow preventing the normal growth of healthy blood cells. Myeloma is often referred to as multiple myeloma, and there are various types of myeloma. The type is determined by the kind of antibodies or other abnormal cells are produced and the activity of the disease in the body. Smoldering Myeloma and Multiple Myeloma are the most common myeloma diagnoses.

What are the Symptoms & Complications of Myeloma?

The symptoms of myeloma can vary greatly from patient to patient. At the time of diagnosis, a patient may have no symptoms or be experiencing severe symptoms.

Doctor and patient talkingCommon symptoms of myeloma include:

  • Bone pain, especially in your spine or chest
  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Loss of appetite
  • Mental fogginess or confusion
  • Fatigue
  • Frequent infections
  • Weight loss
  • Weakness or numbness in your legs
  • Excessive thirst

Complications from myeloma include:

  • Frequent infections
  • Bone thinning and tendency for broken bones
  • Reduced kidney function or kidney failure
  • Anemia or other blood problems

Who is at Risk of Myeloma?

Several factors that increase a person's risk of myeloma:
  • Age: Risk of myeloma increases as you age, especially for people in their mid-60's or older.
  • Sex: Men are more likely to develop myeloma than women.
  • Race: African Americans are two times as likely to develop myeloma.
  • Family History: You are at increased risk if a direct family member like a sibling or parent has had myeloma.

How is Myeloma Diagnosed & Treated?

Most commonly, myeloma is diagnosed with a blood test that determines your kidney function, blood cell counts, calcium levels, and uric acid levels. Your doctor may also test your urine to detect certain proteins that are indicative of myeloma. X-rays, MRIs, CT, or PET scans can also detect bone issues. In some case, your doctor may extract a sample of your bone marrow to examine it for myeloma cells and track how fast the myeloma is growing.

Although myeloma isn't curable, there are treatments that can help patients manage the disease. These include drug treatments, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and a bone marrow transplant. Most patients are evaluated to see if they are a good candidate for a bone marrow transplant and if not, are treated with other options. In some cases, myeloma doesn't respond to treatment or treatments need to be repeated. Thankfully, research and clinical trials are ongoing for myeloma and could offer better treatment options in the future.

Educating yourself about myeloma is an important first step in prevention. If you're experiencing symptoms or have concerns about your health, it's important to contact your doctor.