What is myeloma?

Myeloma is a form of cancer that involves the bone marrow and white blood cells. Cancer is a condition that happens when cells in your body mutate. The cells' DNA permanently changes and doesn't act normally.

Myeloma can travel around your body through your bloodstream. It can settle into bones, causing them to become weak, painful and more likely to break or crack. When myeloma occurs at many bone marrow sites throughout your body, it's called multiple myeloma.

White blood cells produce antibodies, which fight diseases and infections in your body. When cancer involves these cells, the patient becomes weaker and is more easily affected by diseases and infections. Myeloma can also cause problems with red blood cells.

Blood Cancer Leukemia

Causes of myeloma

Doctors don't know for sure what causes myeloma. They do know that it starts with one abnormal cell in a person's blood plasma. This cell multiplies very quickly. After a while, the healthy cells don't have enough room to produce new healthy cells.

Risk factors for myeloma

Risk factors for myeloma include:

  • Being African-American
  • Being exposed to radiation
  • Being male
  • Being obese
  • Being older than age 50
  • Having close relatives who had myeloma
  • Working in a job that involves petroleum products

Symptoms of myeloma

Some people who have early stages of myeloma don't experience any symptoms.

If there are symptoms, they might include:

  • Being constipated
  • Experiencing weakness or loss of feeling in the legs
  • Experiencing weight loss that isn't explained by other factors
  • Feeling fatigued
  • Feeling mentally confused or fuzzy
  • Feeling nauseous or constantly thirsty
  • Feeling pain in the bones
  • Getting lots of infections
  • Having a loss of appetite

Other signs of myeloma may include:

  • Bone loss, swelling or fracture
  • Kidney failure
  • Not enough red blood cells
  • Too much calcium or protein in the blood
  • Too much protein in the urine

Diagnosis of myeloma

Doctors can use many different examinations and tests to find myeloma. Sometimes they even discover by accident when a patient has a test for another reason.

Ways to diagnose myeloma include:

Blood or urine tests

The doctor is looking for certain proteins that myeloma cells produce in the blood and urine.

Biopsy

To perform this procedure, the doctor inserts a long needle into a bone to collect a sample of the bone marrow. The doctor then examines the sample. A trained specialist who looks for abnormal cells also tests the sample.

Imaging tests

X-ray, CT, MRI or PET scans create images of the inside of your body. These images may help the doctor look at bone weaknesses, small breaks in the bone or other signs of myeloma.

Treatments for myeloma

Multiple myeloma that has been diagnosed but doesn't cause any noticeable symptoms for the patient is sometimes called smoldering multiple myeloma. This condition may be monitored for signs that it has progressed before treatment begins. Monitoring is done with regular blood and urine tests.

According to the nonprofit Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, there's no known cure for myeloma. However, it's treatable, and treatment can help patients manage their symptoms.

Treatment options may include:

  • Chemotherapy — drugs are given either by mouth or through a vein into your bloodstream on a regular schedule over a period of weeks or months.
  • Radiation — high-energy x-rays are used to target and kill cancer; this can be used alone or with other treatment methods.
  • Medication — oral medicines can fight myeloma cells. They help your immune system. This treatment is also called biological therapy. It may involve a type of drug known as a corticosteroid.
  • Bone marrow transplant — during this treatment, the doctor collects certain stem cells from your bloodstream and after chemotherapy, the collected stem cells are returned to your body so they can rebuild your bone marrow.

Complications or side effects from multiple myeloma can also be treated.

Examples include:

  • Dialysis for kidney damage
  • Medications to help prevent bone destruction
  • Medications to increase red blood cells
  • Medications to reduce bone pain
  • Vaccines to prevent infections

Find a myeloma specialist nearby

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