Multiple myeloma is a cancer caused by cancerous plasma cells that form plasmacytomas, or plasma tumors. Plasma cells are a type of white blood cell that exist primarily within the bone marrow and create antibodies to help kill germs and prevent infections.
Causes of Multiple Myeloma
Multiple myeloma develops as a result of one atypical plasma cell that multiplies rapidly in the bone marrow. While what triggers this rapid cell growth isn’t fully understood, researchers have identified several risk factors that can increase the risk of developing multiple myeloma. These include being:
- Overweight or obese
- Male African-American
- Over the age of 50
- Exposed to radiation
- Closely related to someone with multiple myeloma
Multiple Myeloma Symptoms
Multiple myeloma may not cause any noticeable symptoms initially. As the cancer spreads, however, at least one of four hallmark symptoms may occur. Often referred to by the acronym CRAB, these signs of multiple myeloma include:
- Calcium – High calcium levels in the blood (hypercalcemia) can lead to excessive thirst, frequent urination, dehydration, constipation, belly pain, loss of appetite, confusion and drowsiness, among other problems.
- Renal failure – Kidney (renal) failure and other kidney problems may occur as a result of too much myeloma protein in the blood. Signs of kidney failure include weakness, itching and leg swelling.
- Anemia – Low levels of red blood cells (anemia) are common in people with multiple myeloma. Anemia may cause shortness of breath, weakness and dizziness.
- Bone damage – Multiple myeloma can cause bones to leak calcium, leading to bone pain, weakness and easily broken bones.
Multiple Myeloma Diagnosis
Physicians often spot the warning signs of multiple myeloma before patients experience obvious symptoms thanks to routine blood tests that measure levels of platelets, red cells and white cells. If multiple myeloma or another plasma cell disease is suspected, one or more of the following tests may be performed to come to a diagnosis:
- Blood chemistry testing to measure calcium and creatinine levels
- Urine testing to screen for myeloma proteins
- Imaging tests, such as bone X-rays and MRI scans, to check for cancer-related damage
- A bone marrow biopsy to collect and test a small sample of cells
Treatments for Multiple Myeloma
There is not yet a cure for multiple myeloma, but treatment may not be necessary for patients without symptoms. Instead, a “watchful waiting” approach may be used to closely monitor for signs of disease progression. When treatment is recommended, common approaches include chemotherapy, targeted therapy and biological therapy.