Multiple myeloma is a relatively rare type of cancer in the United States according to the American Cancer Society.
Definition & Facts
Multiple myeloma is a form of cancer that affects the plasma cells located in the bone marrow. The cancer starts when healthy plasma cells begin showing signs of uncontrolled growth. Plasma cells play a crucial role in helping the body fight infections. However, uncontrolled growth can lead to suppression of other cells such as white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets.
According to American Cancer Society, this cancer causes approximately 13,000 deaths every year in the United States. Over 30,000 new diagnoses of the disease are made each year in America. The five-year survival rate for people with this type of cancer is 47%.
Symptoms & Complaints
- Pain in the bones, mostly in the hips and skull.
- Weakness in the bones with occasional fractures caused by minor stress.
- Weakness, reduced ability to exercise, and dizziness due to lack of enough red blood cells.
- Lower resistance to infections as a result of reduced number of white blood cells. White blood cells are known to fight infections and boost the body's overall immunity.
- Unexplained bleeding and easy bruising. This is due to the diminished number of platelets that are responsible for producing blood clots.
- Dehydration, loss of appetite, drowsiness, confusion, and kidney problems due to excess calcium in the blood.
- Sudden back pain, numbness, and muscle weakness due to the spinal cord compression. This is because the cancer weakens the bones in the spine that lead to collapse or pressure.
- The myeloma cells may produce abnormal proteins that are toxic to the nerves. This can lead to nerve damage which manifests itself in the form of weakness and numbness.
- The cancer cells can cause thickening of blood (hyperviscosity)
- Common infections that don’t respond well to treatment.
It is not clear what causes this type of cancer. It is believed to result from mutation of certain genes in the body that control the growth of cells (oncogenes) and allow them to die at the right time (tumor suppressor genes). In addition, chromosome abnormalities may play a role in the development and aggressiveness of myeloma cells.
Certain risk factors have also been identified for this condition. For example, obesity and a weakened immune system are risk factors. Certain occupations that expose people to carcinogenic chemicals and radiation also put people at a higher risk of developing this disease.
Other research suggests that multiple myeloma is associated with monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS). Presence of this condition is marked by production of abnormal plasma cells. The condition may advance to cancer if not controlled early enough. Sometimes, multiple myeloma can arise without any risk factors.
Diagnosis & Tests
In most cases, doctors suspect presence of this condition based on the signs and symptoms a patient presents. In rare cases, the doctor may accidentally discover the condition while running some unrelated blood tests. Some of the tests include:
- Blood tests. This involves laboratory analysis of the blood that may reveal the myeloma proteins (M proteins) produced by myeloma cells. Other additional blood tests can be done to determine kidney function and calcium levels.
- Urine tests. This test can be done to detect M proteins in the urine.
- Examination of bone marrow. Sometimes, the doctor may take a sample of the bone marrow for testing. The doctor then uses a specialized test to look for myeloma cells. Most laboratory tests are done to measure the rate at which the cells are dividing.
- Imaging tests. There are recommended to help detect the problems in the bone linked with multiple myeloma. Tests may include X-rays, CT scans, or MRIs.
The doctor will use the information gathered from the tests to make a comprehensive diagnosis. If the tests prove to be positive for myeloma cells, the doctor will then attempt to stage the cancer. There are three stages for multiple myeloma.
Treatment & Therapy
After the disease has been diagnosed, a patient's physician and medical team will devise the best treatment method. First, the doctor may consider chemotherapy which is used to kill the malignant cells. Chemotherapy can be administered intravenously or orally. Corticosteroids may be prescribed to mitigate the side effects of chemotherapy and reduce inflammation and pain that may arise around tumors. Some doctors may opt for radiation therapy which uses beams of light to damage malignant cells and halt their growth.
Stem cell transplantation may be performed to replace affected bone marrow with healthy stem cells. The stem cells are injected into the body where they help rebuild the bone marrow. Biological therapy has also emerged as an alternative treatment method. The drugs are injected into the body where they help bolster the immune cells that fight malignant cells. They are usually taken in the form of pills. Because myeloma causes complications associated with pain, doctors can prescribe pain medications to help control the pain. The doctors can also recommend certain vaccines to help deal with occasional infections.
Prevention & Prophylaxis
Certain diets are also recommended for those who are at risk of developing the disease. These diets are commonly known as anti-cancer diets. They include broccoli, arugula, cabbage, cauliflower, turnips, wasabi.