Multiple myeloma is a rare type of cancer that affects your bone marrow. Knowing the most common signs and symptoms of multiple myeloma may help you detect it before it becomes advanced. Make an appointment to talk with your doctor if you notice any of these potential warning signs.
Multiple myeloma is a cancer that develops in your blood’s plasma cells. Plasma cells are a type of white blood cell. These cells are responsible for recognizing foreign infections and making antibodies to fight them. Plasma cells live in your bone marrow. Bone marrow is a soft tissue that fills some hollow bones. In addition to producing plasma cells, bone marrow is also responsible for producing other healthy blood cells.
Multiple myeloma leads to an accumulation of cancer cells in your bone marrow. Eventually, the cancer cells overtake healthy blood cells. The body becomes unable to produce the disease-fighting antibodies. Instead, it produces harmful proteins that damage your kidneys and cause other signs and symptoms.
Unlike healthy, normal cells, cancer cells don’t mature and then die away. They live and accumulate. In the case of multiple myeloma, cancer cells rapidly multiply and eventually overwhelm bone marrow. Because the production of cancer cells outpaces the production of healthy blood cells, the cancer cells will crowd out healthy cells. This leads to anemia, fatigue, and frequent infections.
Instead of producing helpful antibodies like normal plasma cells, myeloma cancer cells produce abnormal and harmful antibodies. The body can’t use these antibodies, called monoclonal proteins (M proteins). Over time, these proteins build up in the body and can damage the kidneys.
The signs and symptoms of multiple myeloma aren’t always easy to detect. You may not experience any of the signs during the cancer’s earliest phases. As the cancer advances, the symptoms vary greatly, and one person’s experience may be different from another’s.
The most common signs and symptoms of multiple myeloma include:
- fatigue: As myeloma cells replace bone marrow, your body will grow tired. Healthy cells allow your body to fight invading germs easily. However, your body has to work much harder with fewer disease-fighting cells, and you tire more easily.
- bone problems: Myeloma can prevent your body from making new bone cells. This can cause problems like bone pain, weakened bones, and broken bones.
- kidney problems: Myeloma cells produce harmful proteins that can cause kidney damage. Kidney failure may also occur.
- low blood counts: Myeloma cells crowd out healthy blood cells. This can lead to low blood counts, including low red blood cells (anemia) and low white blood cells (leukopenia). Unhealthy blood cell levels can make it harder to fight infections.
- frequent infections: Fewer antibodies in your blood make fighting infections more difficult.
Other common signs and symptoms of multiple myeloma include:
- weight loss
- loss of appetite
- weakness or loss of feeling in your legs
- swelling in your legs
- increased thirst
- frequent urination
- pain, especially in the back or belly
Several factors increase your risk for developing multiple myeloma. These include:
- MGUS: In almost all cases, multiple myeloma begins as a benign condition called monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS). According to the Mayo Clinic, about 3 percent of Americans over the age of 50 have MGUS. MGUS is marked by the presence of M proteins.
With MGUS, the M proteins are at low levels and are not damaging the body. Increased levels of MGUS may signal that you’ve developed multiple myeloma.
- age: Your risk for multiple myeloma increases as you age. Most people who are diagnosed are in their mid-60s. The median age of diagnosis is 69. According to the American Cancer Society, less than 1 percent of people diagnosed with multiple myeloma are younger than 35.
- race: African-Americans are twice as likely to develop this type of cancer as whites. The reason is not understood.
- sex: Men are more likely to develop multiple myeloma than women.
- family history: If you have a sibling or a parent with myeloma, you’re four times more likely to be diagnosed than someone without a family history of the cancer. However, family history only accounts for a small number of myeloma cases.
- obesity: A study by the American Cancer Society found that overweight and obese people have an increased risk of developing the cancer.
As multiple myeloma advances, it can cause complications, in addition to the signs and symptoms.
- frequent infections: As myeloma cells crowd out healthy plasma cells, your body becomes less able to fight infections.
- anemia: Normal blood cells will be pushed out of your bone marrow and replaced by cancer cells. This can lead to anemia and other blood problems.
- bone problems: Bone pain, weakened bones, and broken bones are all common complications of multiple myeloma.
- reduced kidney function: M proteins are harmful antibodies produced by the myeloma cancer cells. They can damage your kidney, cause problems with kidney function, and eventually lead to kidney failure. In addition, damaged and eroding bones can increase your blood’s calcium levels. These higher calcium levels can interfere with your kidneys’ ability to filter waste.
You should always be aware of any persistent and unexplained signs or symptoms. In many cases, these unusual signs or symptoms can be explained easily. However, your body tries to tell you when you’re ill, so be aware of changes, even minor ones. If unusual symptoms persist, make an appointment to see your doctor.