Do You Know the Early Signs of Myeloma?
Multiple myeloma is a cancer of the plasma cells in the bone marrow. As these white blood cells multiply, they leave little room for healthy cells. They can also damage the bone marrow, develop into growths or destroy the bones. Multiple myeloma is not a common cancer – the lifetime risk is about 1 in 143, according to Cancer.Net.
There is no cure for multiple myeloma. Early detection can help you seek treatment to manage the disease and avoid any harmful side effects of the condition, such as kidney failure, bone fractures, numbness, weakness, paralysis, and infections.
Early Signs of Myeloma
Many people with myeloma have no symptoms during the initial stages of the disease. Some early signs of myeloma are so general that patients mistake them for other ailments. Paying attention to your body and following through with routine exams may allow you and your physician to identify the condition.
Protein in the Blood
Normal plasma cells generate useful antibodies, while myeloma cells make atypical antibodies. These are called monoclonal, or M, proteins. They don’t fight infection. They have no practical use and can harm your system.
High levels of protein in the blood may be detected during a standard blood test. If you have M proteins in the blood, you may be diagnosed with monoclonal gammopathy of unknown significance, or MGUS.
MGUS can be harmless, but it is also associated with diseases such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and hepatitis C. If you have MGUS, you may have smoldering multiple myeloma and be more likely to develop myeloma in the future. Your doctor may order further testing to determine the cause of the elevated protein levels.
Low Blood Counts
Myeloma may cause low levels of certain compounds in the blood. These include:
- White blood cells
- Blood platelets
Anemia, which is caused by low iron, may lead to shortness of breath, dizziness, fatigue, and weakness. Leukopenia, a low white blood cell count, reduces your ability to fight infection. If your blood platelet count is low, you may bruise or bleed easily.
Protein in the Urine
The M proteins that can show up in the blood can also leak into the urine. Urine tests contain M proteins in 50 to 80 percent of patients with multiple myeloma.
High Blood Calcium Levels
As bone is destroyed, the calcium levels in the blood may rise, causing hypercalcemia. About 10 to 15 percent of patients will exhibit this sign when they’re initially diagnosed with myeloma. More than 25 percent of those with this cancer will eventually develop hypercalcemia.
Some people with MGUS or myeloma may experience numbness or weakness in the extremities. This often happens in the legs if spinal fractures have caused the bones to compress nerves in that area.
M proteins can damage your nerves too. If this occurs, you may experience the sensation of pins and needles in your hands and feet. You may also feel weak and find it hard to grasp objects.
As the cancer cells proliferate and the proteins build up, your kidneys can become damaged. Kidney problems usually turn up on a blood or urine test before they produce discernable symptoms. If you do notice signs of reduced kidney function, you might have itching, swollen legs, weakness or shortness of breath.
Because myeloma can destroy the bones, bone pain may indicate that you have the condition. Many people with the disease experience this type of discomfort in their ribs, spine, hips, and skull. They often develop fractures from slight injuries.
It is often difficult to associate fatigue with a particular illness because it can also be linked with lack of sleep, poor eating habits, and other lifestyle issues. If you notice that you’re feeling more tired or weak than usual and can’t pinpoint a reason, you might want to consult with a doctor. In multiple myeloma, fatigue often occurs in combination with dizziness, fogginess, confusion and weight loss.
If an individual has any of the symptoms above and myeloma is suspected, additional testing may be performed. Biopsies and imaging tests can detect tumors or cancerous cells. People who are diagnosed with myeloma have a variety of options for managing the disease.
Surgery may be used to remove tumors that have developed from the plasma cell overgrowth. It can also repair bone damage caused by myeloma. On its own, surgery is not usually effective for active multiple myeloma.
Radiation delivers high doses of energy to eliminate tumors. It often targets areas of specific bone damage, reducing pain and helping you maintain a high quality of life.
Drug Therapy for Active Myeloma
If cancerous cells are detected or the patient has symptoms of cancer, medications may be used to combat malignancies, control cell reproduction, reduce inflammation and regulate the immune system.
Chemotherapy destroys cancer, but it damages healthy tissue too. It is often administered along with corticosteroids. The corticosteroid medication, such as dexamethasone, reduces nausea associated with chemotherapy. It can also kill myeloma cells and prevent white blood cells from drifting into damaged areas, thereby reducing inflammation.
Proteasome inhibitors stop the cellular process that makes cancer proliferate. These medications target the malignant tissue more than healthy cells.
Immunomodulators interfere with cancers in a number of ways. They can enhance a patient’s immunity, stop the growth of myeloma cells and make the bone marrow environment inhospitable for cancer cells.
Bisphosphonates slow down the bone damage that’s caused by myeloma. They keep the skeleton strong and may reduce pain.
Stem Cell Transplant
Stem cell transplant is a common treatment for myeloma. It often reduces cancer to a point where there are no measurable signs of the disease.
Chemotherapy destroys harmful cells. Stem cell transplants infuse the body with a supply of healthy cells. Stem cells may come from the patient’s blood or a donor.
Some myeloma treatments don’t affect the cancer cells but help the patient stay as healthy as possible. Intravenous immunoglobulin delivers antibodies that reduce infection risks. Plasmapheresis removes M proteins from the bloodstream, improving circulation.
Do Your Research
When deciding to treat myeloma, ask your doctor about the risks, benefits, and goals of the treatment. Find out how long the therapy will last and what the chances are that it will lead to durable remission.
If necessary, get a second opinion to investigate all approaches to treatment so that you can find the one that works best to treat the early signs of myeloma.