Multiple myeloma is a cancer that forms in plasma cells. Plasma cells are white blood cells found in bone marrow. Plasma cells are a key part of the immune system. They make antibodies that fight infection.
When plasma cells become cancerous, they produce a protein that grows quickly and takes over the bone marrow, blocking healthy cells from doing their job. The cancerous cells grow into bone tumors called plasmacytomas. When there’s just one tumor formed in the bone, the condition is called a myeloma. If multiple tumors exist, this is called multiple myeloma.
As myeloma cells grow, they interfere with the production of normal plasma cells. This can cause several health complications. The areas most heavily affected are the bones, the blood, and the kidneys. Below are some common complications from multiple myeloma.
According to the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (MMRF), 85 percent of people diagnosed with multiple myeloma experience bone loss to some degree. The most commonly affected bones are the spine, pelvis, and rib cage. Cancerous cells in the bone marrow prevent normal cells from repairing lesions or soft spots that form in the bones. Decreased bone density can lead to fractures and spinal compression.
Malignant plasma cell production interferes with the production of normal blood cells, both red and white. Anemia occurs when the red blood cell count is low. It can cause fatigue, shortness of breath, and dizziness. According to the MMRF, about 60 percent of people with myeloma experience anemia.
Weak Immune System
White blood cells fight infection in the body, recognizing and attacking harmful germs that may cause disease. A low white blood cell count leaves the body vulnerable to infection. Antibodies produced by cancerous cells can also overtake healthy antibodies, resulting in a further weakened immune system.
Bone loss from myeloma causes an excess of calcium to be released into the bloodstream. People with a high number of bone tumors are most likely to get hypercalcemia. Hypercalcemia can also be caused by overactive parathyroid glands. When left untreated, severe cases of hypercalcemia can lead to a coma or cardiac arrest.
Excess protein and calcium in the blood put a strain on the kidneys as they try to keep up with filtering all of the unwanted material out of the blood. A study published in the journal Nephrology Dialysis Transplantation states that around 50 percent of people with myeloma will experience some level of kidney failure.
With multiple myeloma, the malignant plasma cells in the bone marrow set off a chain reaction of processes in the body. Kidney failure is one of the final links in this chain. Rapid growth of malignant cells prevents the bones from rebuilding themselves. Since the bones can’t rebuild themselves, they begin to degenerate.
Degenerating bones release high amounts of calcium and protein into the bloodstream. The kidneys try to process all of the calcium and protein, but they can’t, and they get overworked. If the kidneys are overworked for too long, kidney failure occurs.
Luckily there are several ways that the kidneys can be kept healthy in people with myeloma, especially when the condition is caught early. Drugs called bisphosphonates, most commonly used to treat osteoporosis, can be taken to reduce bone damage and hypercalcemia. Patients can get fluid therapy to rehydrate the body, either orally or intravenously. Anti-inflammatory drugs called glucocorticoids can reduce cell activity. Dialysis can take some of the strain off the kidney function. Finally, the balance of drugs administered in chemotherapy can be adjusted so as not to further harm the kidneys.
Kidney failure is a common effect of multiple myeloma. When the condition is identified and treated in its early stages, damage to the kidneys can be minimal. When damage does occur, there are treatment options to help reverse the cancer’s effects on the kidneys.