Understanding Multiple Myeloma

Written by Donna Walker, MD on

Multiple myeloma is a blood cancer that can cause a problem with the bones; however, there are many treatments available.

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Multiple myeloma is a blood cancer that can cause a problem with the bones; however, there are many treatments available.

If you’ve been told that you or a loved one has multiple myeloma (also sometimes referred to as just “myeloma”), it’s easy to feel anxious. For one, you may confuse the term “myeloma” with “melanoma” at first glance—while both are cancerous conditions, they are not related to each other. Another reason why you may feel anxious is that multiple myeloma is a relatively uncommon condition in the US, with a lifetime risk of less than one percent, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). Because it is a lesser-known health condition, you may not have any familiarity with how multiple myeloma is diagnosed, treated, and may affect your life.

At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, we are committed to providing the best possible care to our patients who have been diagnosed with cancer conditions such as multiple myeloma. Our team of cancer providers, also known as oncologists, is highly skilled at matching you with the best, most evidence-based treatment plans. They can help you manage the particular types of cancers that can occur in the blood, such as myeloma, leukemia, and lymphoma. Our oncologists are well-equipped to guide you throughout your entire myeloma treatment journey and make sure that you stay well-informed about your options.

Multiple myeloma is a cancer condition involving your body’s plasma cells. Here’s a primer on multiple myeloma, with answers to the most common questions that you may have.

What are Plasma Cells?

To understand the condition of multiple myeloma, it helps to first learn a little about the types of cells in your blood. Your blood contains several different types of blood cells, each with different roles. Red blood cells, for example, help transport oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules around your body. On the other hand, white blood cells partake in your immune response—targeting invaders to keep you healthy. A particular type of white blood cell, known as a plasma cell, produces antibodies that help your body fight off infections. Plasma cells get produced in your bone marrow, which is the soft tissue that is in the center of some of your bones, such as your femur.

What Multiple Myeloma?

Cancer is often considered a condition of “unchecked growth.” All cells have roles and responsibilities in your body, including replicating themselves. However, sometimes your cells grow too much or abnormally. In the case of multiple myeloma, the plasma cells in your bone marrow begin to grow abnormally, producing too many of themselves too fast. This can cause tumors to form within your bones, weakening them and making them more likely to break down, releasing their contents. This destruction of your bones can change the amount of calcium within your blood, causing problems for organs such as your kidneys. With too many plasma cells in your bone marrow, it can also crowd out other types of cells, such as red blood cells, causing a condition of low red blood cell counts, known as anemia.

What are the Symptoms of Multiple Myeloma?

The symptoms of multiple myeloma can be very vague, which sometimes makes the condition hard to detect initially. The symptoms can relate to the processes going on in the bones themselves or to the consequences of the bone destruction.

Here are some of the more common symptoms of multiple myeloma:

  • Bone pain, which the American Cancer Society notes is more likely to be in your back, hips, or skull
  • Shortness of breath, dizziness, or having trouble exercising due to fatigue
  • More bleeding than usual if you get a cut or scrape
  • Feeling very thirsty
  • Blurry vision
  • Weight loss
  • Urinating more than usual
  • Having trouble with a bowel movement due to constipation
  • Feeling weak, drowsy, or confused
  • Shortness of breath
  • Not having an appetite
  • Abdominal pain
  • Severe pain, such as back pain
  • Numbness, tingling, or muscle weakness, usually in the legs
  • Leg swelling

Other conditions that may indicate that you have multiple myeloma include:

  • Osteoporosis, or bone thinning, in certain areas
  • Breaking a bone after an event that would not normally cause a bone to break, such as a minor bump
  • Weight loss
  • Getting sick more often than usual
  • Having a low red blood count
  • Kidney failure
  • Dehydration

Certain emergent symptoms can occur with multiple myeloma, as well. These include losing consciousness (the high levels of calcium in your blood can cause a coma) or severe and numbness or weakness of your legs—if you’re experiencing these scenarios, seek emergency evaluation.

It’s also possible not to have symptoms of multiple myeloma but for it to be discovered when your medical provider is helping you with a separate condition. Your asymptomatic myeloma may be managed differently than if you were having symptoms.

Who Gets Multiple Myeloma?

According to the International Myeloma Foundation (IMF), certain people are more likely to get multiple myeloma. This includes:

  • People between the ages of 65 and 74
  • Men, who are 1.5 times more likely to get the condition than women
  • People of African descent, who are twice as likely to get the condition compared to people of a different background
  • People who have a family history of multiple myeloma
  • People who are overweight or obese
  • People with other blood conditions, such as monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS)

Some experts also believe that exposure to Agent Orange, or other chemicals, may make you more likely to develop multiple myeloma. Unlike other forms of cancer, experts are unsure whether there are specific steps that you can take to avoid getting multiple myeloma because there are not as many lifestyle-related risk factors.

How is Multiple Myeloma Diagnosed?

Multiple myeloma can be diagnosed using a combination of methods. A blood cancer specialist will examine your blood and urine, as well as imaging tests such as an x-ray, CT scan, PET scan, or MRI. They will likely also recommend a specific procedure known as a bone marrow biopsy to directly analyze the contents of your bone marrow and see what percentage of your bone marrow is plasma cells. After assembling all of this information, your clinician can help “stage” the multiple myeloma, which means the rating reflects the number of abnormal cells and how they impact the rest of your body. The stage of your multiple myeloma will determine how it gets treated.

How is Multiple Myeloma Treated?

When you have been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, it can be intimidating. However, the International Myeloma Foundation notes that multiple myeloma is an extremely treatable disease and, although there is no cure, many patients can continue living long, high-quality lives after receiving a diagnosis.

The treatment options for multiple myeloma vary according to your situation. They can include:

  • A “watch and wait” approach, if your condition is known as “smoldering,” meaning it is moving slowly and at a low level
  • Particular medications that can stop cancer from growing, or slow cancer growth, including targeted therapies
  • Chemotherapy or radiation to kill cancer cells
  • A bone marrow transplant involves removing your bone marrow, undergoing chemotherapy, and then having your bone marrow replaced after the chemotherapy
  • Bone strengthening medications

Generally, a personalized myeloma treatment plan can reduce your symptoms, cause you to go into remission, and extend your life. You will continue to be monitored by a cancer specialist to ensure the cancer is not coming back—if it does come back, a different treatment method can be used.

What is the Outlook for Someone with Multiple Myeloma?

When you are diagnosed with multiple myeloma, getting treatment can help you get back to living your life. Many people with the condition can live many more years with a high quality of life. It’s important to discuss your ultimate goals and desires with your cancer team because getting treatments such as chemotherapy and stem cell transplantation can help reduce your symptoms. Still, you may not want to endure the risks that are involved. Enrolling in a clinical trial may also be a way to receive treatment if you would like to pursue an alternative option.

How to Learn More About Myeloma

At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, our oncology care team is your go-to resource when it comes to learning more about a multiple myeloma diagnosis. We understand that this condition can cause a great deal of anxiety, but we are here to help guide you, keep you comfortable in our state-of-the-art facility, and make sure you receive the best care possible.

To learn more, contact our oncology care team at Lompoc Valley Medical Center today.

Donna Walker, MD
Written By Donna Walker, MD, Medical Oncologist
Dr. Walker is a board-certified Diplomate in Medical Oncology. She had a private practice in the Santa Ynez and Lompoc valleys for almost 20 years. She received her medical training at the University of California at the Los Angeles School of Medicine. She is affiliated with Lompoc Valley Medical Center and Santa Ynez Cottage Hospital.