Affecting nearly 100,000 patients in the United States, multiple myeloma is a far less common cancer than other types. Multiple myeloma begins in a plasma white blood cell and replicates within the bone marrow. Plasma cells are white blood cells that are tasked with producing antibodies to assist the body's immune system in defending against harmful pathogens. When these cells become cancerous, they produce mutated proteins that may interfere with the immune system's normal functions.
Symptoms and Risk Factors of Multiple Myeloma
Early detection of multiple myeloma may result in successful treatment; however, it is uncommon to view symptoms during the early stages of this condition. Symptoms are most typically experienced a few months after the onset of multiple myeloma. Here are a few symptoms that a patient with this condition may experience:
- Appetite loss
- Unexplained tiredness
- Excessive weight loss
- Frequent dehydration
- Nausea and dizziness
- Abdominal aches
- Leg pain or numbness
Through studies and research, experts have identified five major factors that can greatly increase your risk of developing multiple myeloma. These factors include age, gender, race, genetics, and preexisting conditions.
Most patients diagnosed with multiple myeloma are typically aged 50 and over. As your body grows weaker due to age, your risk increases because your immune system is less efficient than before. Some conditions are also more likely to affect one gender over the other. One instance of this is breast cancer, which has a higher diagnosis rate in women than men. Multiple myeloma is more common in men; however, not much is known about why this occurs.
Everyone has a different genetic makeup, as our physical appearances and traits are influenced by our parents. When looking further down the family tree, we may even notice that we share a few common traits with our grandparents and more. While each family line has its own share of unique traits, there are a few genes that are passed down through races rather than small family groups. Multiple myeloma is one such condition that is more likely to affect Black individuals than any other race.
Most diseases have a genetic basis, meaning that if the condition was present in a family member, your risk of developing the disease increases. If you have a family member who had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, there is a high chance that you may develop the condition as you age. Researchers have also found that one disease, MGUS (monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance) is directly linked to the onset of multiple myeloma.
Causes of Multiple Myeloma
As with most cancers, an exact cause of multiple myeloma has yet to be identified. This form of cancer begins with a single cancerous plasma cell in the bone marrow. Under the right conditions, this cell will replicate rapidly until the affected region is full of cancerous cells. The cancerous cells will continue to produce antibodies; however, these antibodies will be useless to the immune system. Instead, the accumulation of these abnormal antibodies might cause malfunctions in organs, such as the kidneys.
As mentioned previously, multiple myeloma has been found to be linked to MGUS. In this condition, abnormal plasma cells produce mutated proteins known as monoclonal proteins. When these proteins are left within the bone marrow, they may interfere with normal bodily functions and cause complications such as multiple myeloma cancer.
When abnormal antibodies accumulate within your body, malfunctions are very likely to occur. Several complications may arise from having multiple myeloma, including kidney malfunction, anemia, reduced immune efficiency, and reduced bone health.
Healthy bone marrow is vital for maintaining optimal bone health. If abnormal cells begin to accumulate within the bone marrow, this may weaken the overall structure of your bones. They will become more susceptible to fractures, strain, and chronic pain. Accompanying this symptom will probably be a decrease in overall immune efficiency. The accumulation of cancerous cells within the body can destroy healthy white blood cells.
Anemia is a condition defined by a loss of red blood cells within the body. This can occur though blood loss, rapid destruction of targeted blood cells, or reduced blood cell production. Multiple myeloma can both cause a destruction of red blood cells and reduce production by interfering with the normal functions of proteins within the bloodstream. When the red blood cell count within your body is low, this can directly cause kidney malfunction, such as kidney disease or failure.
It is quite rare to detect early multiple myeloma; however, treatment may not be immediately recommended. During the early stages of this condition, there are few noticeable symptoms, and it may take months before the disease progresses. During this time, your doctor will continue to monitor your health by scheduling frequent urine and blood tests. Once there are notable signs of progression, your doctor may recommend some options for treatment.
Depending on the stage of the disease, treatment may aim to target different factors. The most popular treatment for cancer, chemotherapy involves the use of targeted drugs to destroy rapidly growing cancerous cells within the body. Because multiple myeloma can originate in the bone marrow, chemotherapy is often used before undergoing a transplant or invasive surgery. In a bone marrow transplant, healthy cells are collected from your bone and then introduced into your bloodstream where they will begin to reconstruct bone marrow. As mentioned, chemotherapy will be used before this procedure to ensure that the affected bone marrow has been destroyed.
If your immune system is still functioning at its best, you may undergo immunotherapy, a treatment that relies heavily on a healthy immune system. This therapy works by reversing the effects of cancerous cells within your body by revealing them to the immune system. Then, your body's natural defense will work to destroy these cells by themselves.
When multiple myeloma, or any form of cancer, is centralized in one region of the body, radiation therapy is often the best course of action because it aims to treat a specific region. Energy beams will be used to either shrink or destroy cancerous cells in that region that are causing major complications, such as reduced bone density.
How Treatment is Decided
Most of the time, a combination of treatments will be used to manage and prevent further spread of cancerous cells within the body. The course of action typically depends on your overall health and the progression of the disease.
During the early stages of multiple myeloma, your health will be monitored to determine if targeted treatments or stem cell transplant would work best. If the condition has not progressed far, targeted medications may be used to eliminate existing cancer cells and prevent the formation of new ones. In rare cases, chemotherapy may be used to ensure the effectiveness of this treatment.
If your condition has progressed to the point where your immune system can no longer operate, you will be considered for stem cell or bone marrow transplant. The process will begin the same with targeted drugs and then transition into surgery preparation. During initial treatment, stem cells will slowly be collected until the amount is sufficient for successful treatment. Once you have undergone a transplant, your doctor will likely recommend radiation or immunotherapy to prevent relapse.
In some instances, a patient may not respond to treatment regardless of what procedure is used. When this occurs, the best option is to retry previous treatment options. For most patients, this tends to be successful; however, if this fails, the next step is often undergoing a clinical trial.
Science is advancing every day as more is being learned about the human body and how diseases such as cancer can affect us. From this research, experts have devised clinical trials that may be successful in treating a disease. These treatments are called trials solely because they are not commonly used for treatment. For most patients that are unresponsive to treatment, clinical trials are used as a last resort.
During treatment, complications may arise as a result of your condition. These complications will be incorporated into your treatment plan and you will be given instructions on how to follow-up on any procedures.
Coping with Multiple Myeloma
Discovering that you have developed cancer can be frightening news; however, there are plenty of ways to cope with this shocking diagnosis. Most patients tend to think that their life will be impacted greatly and that they will no longer be able to live normally. While some aspects of this may be true, cancer does not define your life. In life, we are faced with challenges that we must overcome, but our success is not decided by emerging victorious. Instead, it is defined by how we face these challenges.
Multiple myeloma is one such challenge and like with any other disease, it is best to perform your research on the condition and have every possible question answered before making rash decisions. Thinking with a calm and focused mind will allow you to gain new and insightful information about your condition. In addition, a positive outlook will bring about new opportunities to network, learn new hobbies, and grow mentally. Most of all, do not forget to focus on yourself. During these times, you are the most important tool in your kit.