This is a bone marrow cancer that affects the cells located inside bone marrow. These cells play an important role in the body’s immune system, so damage to them can greatly reduce your defenses to infections. Myeloma does not generally appear as a lump, but spreads through the bone marrow and can be found in multiple places throughout the body which gives it the name multiple myeloma. The initial multiple myeloma symptoms are very hard to spot, but it will result in pain and weakness in the bones.
Myeloma tends to affect people over the age of 60 and is twice as likely to affect black people as white. The risk factors include having a close relative who has the disease, obesity and some elements of diet. It is a rare cancer, affecting around 60 to 70 people in every million, and although it is incurable it can be managed for many years.
Multiple Myeloma Symptoms
Multiple myeloma will have very few symptoms initially, the following are possible symptoms that may eventually occur; there are many causes of these symptoms but a doctor should investigate further if you exhibit one or more of them.
Bone fractures or pain – dull, achy pain generally occurs in the middle and lower back, hips or ribcage and gets worse with movement. The spine or ribs may fracture easily and cause compression of the spinal cord which in turn leads to pins and needles in the legs, and feelings of weak or numbness.
Fatigue and anemia – both of these may occur as a result of the illness or a side effect of treatment; anemia is a reduction of red blood cells and so less efficient delivery of oxygen around the body which leads to breathlessness and fatigue.
Kidney damage – This can be caused by treatments for myeloma, other complications such as hypercalcaemia which is the release of too much calcium into the blood, or by the alien proteins produced by the cancerous cells.
Diagnosis and treatment
As this is a rare cancer with symptoms that could point to many more likely things a diagnosis can be difficult. It will generally not be until you get to a specialist that the exact diagnosis will be made, although a GP will recognize general cancer symptoms and refer you. Blood and urine samples will be the first tests done; these can tell if you have strange antibodies or a high level of calcium in your blood, and count the blood cells and platelets to see if there is a problem. A urine test will highlight any damage to your kidneys.
If the specialist suspects myeloma, then x-rays will be done to check the health of your bones; bones damaged by myeloma show up as dark patches on an x-ray. CT or MRI scans may be done for extra information, and the final confirmation will be via a biopsy of a piece of bone marrow.
Myeloma is not curable, but it is manageable. The aim of treatments will be to get the cancer under control and manage the symptoms such as anemia and sore bones associated with it. Not everyone will need treatment immediately, but will be monitored until treatment is required.
Possible treatments include –
Thalidomide – this drug is known to cause birth defects in pregnant women, so it is vital that effective birth control is used if you take this. It is effective in killing myeloma cells, but can have side effects including a slight risk of blood clots so warfarin may also be prescribed to prevent this.
Chemotherapy – This works by directly killing myeloma cells in a number of ways and the chemotherapy used for myeloma has relatively minor side effects compared to other chemotherapy drugs.
Treating the multiple myeloma symptoms – radiotherapy can help reduce the bone pain and blood transfusions replenish low red blood cells to treat anemia. Surgery may sometimes be needed to strengthen bones or treat fractures. Bisphosphonates help to reduce or slow the damage to bones and improve the bone repair process that is damaged by the myeloma cells.
Although multiple myeloma is not curable, it can be manage for many years and patients will go through cycles of treatments to control the spread of the cancerous cells. The survival rates have doubled over the last 10 years, and the comfort levels of sufferers has also increased.
If your suffering from multiple myeloma we would love for you to get in touch so we can expand this page to give advice from current suffers and how they are dealing with the disease in there everyday lives.