Multiple myeloma is a blood cancer that forms when plasma cells, white blood cells that fight germs, start to grow out of control. They’re found in marrow, the spongy tissue inside some of your bigger bones. Sometimes these abnormal plasma cells, known as myeloma cells, form a single tumor. That’s called a solitary plasmacytoma. If you have more than one of these tumors, it’s called multiple myeloma.
Multiple Myeloma: Causes
Like many cancers, multiple myeloma has no known cause. However, there are some things that can raise your chances. Age plays a role: Most people who have it are over 65. It’s twice as common in African-Americans and slightly more likely to affect men than women. If someone in your family has it, you’re more likely to get it, too.
You may wonder if there was anything you could have done to avoid this cancer. The answer is no. It doesn’t result from lifestyle choices, and you can’t discover it with early screening tests. In fact, multiple myeloma is hard to find early. Symptoms usually don’t show up until you’ve had it a while. But scientists learn more about what causes it every year, and new drugs are in the pipeline.
Multiple Myeloma: Low Blood Counts Symptoms
Plasma cells aren’t the only ones formed in your bone marrow. Other white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets are created there, too. However, myeloma cells can prevent bone marrow from making these healthy blood cells. That can lead to:
Multiple Myeloma: Symptom, Bone Fractures
Myeloma cells are a major enemy to bones. Believe it or not, your “old” bone is constantly being dissolved by cells called osteoclasts. Meanwhile, cells known as osteoblasts are making new bone. These things normally happen together. Myeloma cells speed up the breakdown process, but not the buildup. The result: Your bones get weak and can fracture easily.
Plasma cells make antibodies, which fight germs. If you get a cold, they can create an antibody to attack the virus that’s making you sick. Abnormal plasma cells don’t do that. Myeloma cells multiply and quickly crowd out your healthy plasma cells, along with other white blood cells that protect you from infection.
Multiple Myeloma: More Symptoms
Multiple myeloma can lead to health problems like:
Because your bone dissolves faster than normal, you may have a high level of calcium in your blood. You might also feel really thirsty and dehydrated.
Blood tests can check for many red flags, like low blood cell counts and high calcium levels. X-rays can reveal bone loss. But the most important test for this cancer is a bone marrow biopsy. A doctor will insert a special needle into your bone and remove a tiny piece of tissue. He’ll look at it with a microscope to see if you have myeloma cells.
There are traditional cancer drugs like chemotherapy and corticosteroids. Or your doctor could try one of several new options:
If you’re under 65, or over 65 and otherwise healthy, your doctor may suggest a stem cell transplant. Before it, you’ll get a high dose of chemo or radiation to kill cells in your bone marrow. Then you’ll get a transplant of healthy stem cells — the ones that create new blood. You might get your own cells. The doctor will call this an autologous transplant. Or they could come from a donor. This is known as an allogeneic transplant.
Drugs and blood transfusions improve anemia (low red blood cell counts) and the extreme fatigue it causes. There’s a special procedure that thins your thickened blood, a problem that can result in dizziness and confusion. Another treatment, intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG), will help your body fight infections. You might also take drugs called bisphosphonates to lower your risk of bone fractures.