What is multiple myeloma?

Multiple myeloma is a rare type of cancer that affects bone marrow and alters your blood’s plasma cells. Plasma cells are a type of white blood cell and are responsible for recognizing foreign infections and making antibodies to fight them.

Plasma cells live in your bone marrow, the soft tissue that fills hollow bones. In addition to 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, and your body becomes unable to produce disease-fighting antibodies. Instead, it creates harmful proteins that damage your kidneys and cause other signs and symptoms.

Knowing the most common signs and symptoms of multiple myeloma may help you detect it before it becomes advanced. Make an appointment with your doctor if you notice any of the potential warning signs.

Signs and symptoms of multiple myeloma aren’t always easy to detect. You may not experience any of the symptoms during the cancer’s earliest phases. As the cancer advances, symptoms vary greatly. One person’s experience can be completely different from another’s.

The most common signs and symptoms of multiple myeloma include:

  • Fatigue. Healthy cells allow your body to fight invading germs easily. As myeloma cells replace bone marrow, 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, causing problems like bone pain, weakened bones, and broken bones.
  • Kidney problems. Myeloma cells produce harmful proteins that can cause kidney damage and even failure.
  • Low blood counts. Myeloma cells crowd out healthy blood cells, leading to low red blood counts (anemia) and low white blood cells (leukopenia). Unhealthy blood cell levels 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:

Unlike healthy, normal cells, cancer cells don’t mature and then die away. Instead, they live and accumulate. In the case of multiple myeloma, cancer cells rapidly multiply and eventually overwhelm bone marrow.

The production of cancer cells outpaces the production of healthy blood cells, and the cancer cells crowd out the healthy ones. 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. Your body can’t use these antibodies, called monoclonal proteins, or M proteins. Over time, these proteins build up in your body and can damage your kidneys.

Several factors increase your risk for developing multiple myeloma, including:

  • Age. Risk increases with age. Most people who receive a diagnosis for this disease are in their mid-60s. 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 Caucasians.
  • 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 more likely to be diagnosed than someone without a family history of the cancer, according to American Cancer Society. However, family history only accounts for a small number of myeloma cases.
  • Obesity. A study in the journal The Oncologist found that overweight and obese people have an increased risk of developing the cancer.
  • MGUS. In almost all cases, multiple myeloma begins as a benign condition called monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS), which is marked by the presence of M proteins. According to the Mayo Clinic, about 3 percent of Americans over the age of 50 have MGUS.

As multiple myeloma advances, it can cause complications, including:

  • 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, which 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 kidneys, 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 symptom, even minor ones. In many cases, these unusual signs or symptoms can be easily explained. However, if unusual symptoms persist, make an appointment to see your doctor.