What Is Multiple Myeloma?
To help you understand what is happening when you have cancer, it helps to understand how your body works normally. Our bodies are made up of tiny building blocks called cells. Normal cells grow and multiply when the body needs them, and die out when the body does not need them.
Cancer is made up of abnormal cells that grow whether or not they are needed. Multiple myeloma is cancer that begins in the plasma cells. These are a type of white blood cell.
Plasma cells make proteins called antibodies that help our body fight disease. These cells are in the soft inner part of our bones called the bone marrow. Multiple myeloma starts when plasma cells become abnormal. It’s also known as myeloma or plasma cell myeloma.
White blood cells originate in bone marrow, some of which become antibody-producing plasma cells as seen in the top part of the drawing.
Although this cancer starts in blood cells, it has a big effect on bones. Cancerous plasma cells are called myeloma cells. They make large numbers of abnormal proteins called M proteins. M proteins crowd normal bone marrow and harm the bone structure. Your bones may become weak and more likely to break. Because the myeloma cells crowd the normal cells, there is not enough room for the bone marrow to make as many healthy cells.
Several kinds of blood problems may result:
- Low red blood cell count. This condition is called anemia. It is identified by a blood test. It can cause tiredness as well as other problems.
- Low white blood cell count. This condition is neutropenia. It weakens the body’s defenses against infection.
- Low platelet count. This condition is called thrombocytopenia. It may lead to bleeding and bruising easily.
Because they destroy bone, myeloma cells can cause stored calcium from the bone to be released into the bloodstream. This can lead to too much calcium in the blood called hypercalcemia. Hypercalcemia can harm the heart, nerves, and kidneys. These are some signs of hypercalcemia:
- Frequent urination
- Frequent thirst
- Muscle weakness
- Drowsiness or confusion
Other symptoms that may be signs of multiple myeloma include the following:
- Bone pain
- Weight loss
- Repeated infections
- Weakness or numbness in legs
- Back pain
- Broken bones, usually in the spine
- Rib pain
The symptoms of multiple myeloma may be much like those of other bone diseases or medical problems. Always consult a doctor for a diagnosis.
Some people with multiple myeloma may not have any symptoms. Instead, the myeloma is found when blood or urine tests are done for another reason.