Although multiple myeloma is the second most common blood cancer, not many people are familiar with the disease or aware of what the signs and symptoms are. Considering this, our cancer specialists at Compass Oncology have decided that now seems like the perfect time to both educate and empower people regarding this disease.
Multiple myeloma is defined as a cancer of the bone marrow plasma cells. Plasma cells are a type of white blood cell that helps fight infections in the body. When myeloma cells form and multiply beyond control, they crowd out normal plasma cells, which causes cancer.
While the exact cause of multiple myeloma is still unclear, scientists have made progress in understanding how the disease develops. Recently, researchers have found that genetic factors (changes or mutations in the DNA) may influence the development of multiple myeloma.
Know the Signs and Symptoms of Multiple Myeloma
As with many other cancers, multiple myeloma typically does not produce symptoms in its earliest stages. In many cases, the condition is discovered during routine blood or urine tests that are often performed during a patient’s annual physical examination. Still, knowing what to look for can help catch multiple myeloma as early as possible, which makes it easier to treat.
Common signs and symptoms of multiple myeloma include:
- Bone pain, swelling, or tenderness in limbs
- Bone fractures
- Unexplained fatigue or weakness
- Loss of appetite and/or unexplained weight loss
- Recurrent unexplained infections, such as pneumonia, sinus, or urinary tract infection
To help people recognize additional symptoms that can also be related to multiple myeloma, the International Myeloma Foundation suggests remembering the CRAB acronym:
- C: high calcium levels (greater than 10 mg/dL)
- R: renal (kidney) dysfunction
- A: anemia
- B: bone pain
Even though a cure for multiple myeloma has yet to be discovered, it is a treatable disease. Through research, myeloma treatments have come a long way in helping improve the standard of living as well as extend the life expectancy for patients who have been diagnosed with the disease. Your doctor will be able to talk with you about available treatment options and how to manage the symptoms.
Myeloma Symptom Treatments
The four most common multiple myeloma symptoms are bone problems, low anemia, elevated calcium levels, and kidney failure. In addition to treating the cancer, it’s usually necessary to also treat the symptoms. Below are some suggestions on how each of these symptoms can be addressed in multiple myeloma patients:
Bone loss (deterioration), which often leads to symptoms such as bone pain or bone fractures, affects about 85% of patients diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Treatment options to help slow down the deterioration of bone include bisphosphonates or orthopedic interventions.
Anemia, a condition caused by a reduced number of red blood cells, causes weakness, dizziness, shortness of breath, and a reduced ability to exercise. Treatment for anemia may include supplements (such as iron, folate, or vitamin B-12), medications (such as Epogen® or Procrit®), or transfusions (typically for patients with significant red blood cell loss).
Elevated calcium levels
Hypercalcemia--high levels of calcium in the blood--can cause a variety of symptoms including extreme thirst, frequent urination, dehydration, severe constipation, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, weakness, drowsiness, and confusion. Extremely high levels of calcium may even cause some patients to lapse into a coma. Your doctor may recommend medications to lower calcium levels. Severe cases may require hospitalization for treatment with IV fluids and diuretics.
Kidney damage doesn’t usually cause symptoms early on. As the kidneys start to fail, however, they lose the ability to dispose of excess salt, fluid, and body waste products. As a result, patients may experience symptoms such as weakness, shortness of breath, leg swelling, and itching. Drinking lots of fluids and avoiding non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can help patients prevent this from happening. For some patients who have severe kidney problems, plasmapheresis or dialysis may be necessary.
Learn More, Take Action
You can learn more by following the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation. The MMRF focuses on different themes regarding the disease, such as patient education opportunities, clinical trials, resources for patients, and research initiatives.
Looking to join an event to help raise awareness of multiple myeloma in or around Portland-Vancouver? Consider the Crater Lake Peak Weekend happening in August.
Be sure to talk with your doctor if you have any questions or concerns regarding blood cancer. If you’re in the Portland-Vancouver area, the blood cancer specialists at Compass Oncology are here to answer any other questions that you may have regarding multiple myeloma. We also have genetic counselors on hand who can help determine if you have a genetic risk for multiple myeloma or other types of cancer.