Symptoms and Complications
During the early stage of the disease, you may not even be aware that you have multiple myeloma. Some symptoms of the disease include:
- bone pain in your back or ribs
- frequent infections
- weakness in your legs
Signs of multiple myeloma may also include an increase of:
- proteins in your blood or urine - these proteins (also known as monoclonal proteins or M proteins) are produced by myeloma cells and may impair kidney function
- calcium in your blood - this indicates that calcium from your bones is entering your blood due to damage caused by the myeloma cells
The increase of calcium in your blood may lead to such symptoms as:
- diminished appetite
- frequent urination
- increased thirst
Overgrowth of myeloma cells disrupts the production of normal cells in the bone marrow. This causes an impaired immune system and a decrease in the number of red blood cells. Decrease in red blood cells can lead to anemia and fatigue, which is common in people with multiple myeloma. Bone fractures (broken bones) are another complication of multiple myeloma.
Making the Diagnosis
Diagnosis of multiple myeloma depends on a number of factors. Blood or urine test results following a routine doctor's visit may provide the first indication of multiple myeloma. The combination of these results along with other tests, as well as your symptoms, helps determine the presence or absence of the disease.
The blood and urine tests known as serum and urine protein electrophoresis can detect certain proteins (M proteins) produced by the myeloma cells. If the test results show the presence of M proteins or parts of M proteins (Bence Jones proteins), further blood and urine testing may be used to measure your:
- beta-2-microglobulin level
- blood cell counts
- calcium level
- creatinine level
- levels of gamma globulins
- amount of light chains (a part of the M protein) in the blood
- amount of protein in the urine
If your doctor suspects that you have myeloma, the next step is to take X-rays. Weakened areas of the bones are common with myeloma and may be visible in an X-ray.
Also, the removal of bone marrow tissue for microscopic examination is required. This test is called a bone marrow biopsy. During this procedure, the doctor inserts a needle into the bone and removes some of the marrow along with a small piece of the bone, which is then viewed under a microscope to detect the abnormal myeloma cells.
Treatment and Prevention
Because it is not known what causes multiple myeloma, it is not possible to prevent this disease. However, you have a number of options for the treatment of multiple myeloma.
Multiple myeloma often develops slowly and may not always have signs or symptoms. For people with multiple myeloma who are not experiencing symptoms, they may not need to start treatment right away. However, they will need regular visits to their doctor to monitor the progression of the disease.
You may need treatment for the disease if:
- you develop symptoms
- there is an increase in the level of M protein in your blood or urine
- there is an increase in calcium in your blood
- your bones show signs of weakening
- you have problems with kidney function
The different types of treatment include:
- chemotherapy (e.g., melphalan*, cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin)
- novel therapies (e.g., lenalidomide, bortezomib, thalidomide)
- stem cell transplantation
- radiation therapy
- bisphosphonates (e.g., pamidronate, zoledronic acid)
Chemotherapy and newer therapies are common treatments for multiple myeloma. These medications directly damage and kill the abnormal myeloma cells. These medications are specifically designed to quickly attack multiplying cells, but they can also damage normal cells. To reduce the damaging effects and adverse events of these medications, your doctor will carefully determine the type and dose of the medication as well as the duration of treatment.
A person with multiple myeloma can take the medication by mouth or through intravenous injection. The medication must be taken over a period of time, often months. If the level of M proteins stabilizes, you may be able to stop chemotherapy treatment.
Stem cell transplantation involves a combination of chemotherapy to wipe out the diseased cells and the transfusion of a special type of cells called stem cells. Stem cells from you or a donor are transfused into your body to replace damaged bone marrow.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays that penetrate the body to destroy myeloma cells. The radiation targets a specific area, often where a tumor has developed. The treatment may be repeated for 4 or 5 days a week over several weeks. It may also be used to relieve bone pain.
Bisphosphonates are medications given by vein that reduce the likelihood of bones breaking from the myeloma. They may also lessen bone pain.
To treat the anemia that is often associated with multiple myeloma, a group of medications called erythropoietin stimulating agents may be prescribed. They cause the bone marrow to produce more red blood cells.
*All medications have both common (generic) and brand names. The brand name is what a specific manufacturer calls the product (e.g., Tylenol®). The common name is the medical name for the medication (e.g., acetaminophen). A medication may have many brand names, but only one common name. This article lists medications by their common names. For more information on brand names, speak with your doctor or pharmacist.
Todd Gersten, MD, Hematology/Oncology, Palm Beach Cancer Institute, West Palm Beach, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.