Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia is a type of cancer that causes abnormal white blood cells in the bone marrow to overproduce immunoglobulin M (IgM). Treatment may help you manage your symptoms.

Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia is a rare, slow-spreading type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. These are cancers that start in white blood cells, called lymphocytes, which are part of your immune system.

The immune system produces cells that protect your body against infection.

One such cell is the B lymphocyte, also known as a B cell. These respond to infection by changing into another type of cell called a plasma cell. Plasma cells make proteins called antibodies, or immunoglobulins, that help the body attack invading diseases.

Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia is characterized by an excess number of abnormal white blood cells in the bone marrow. These are lymphoplasmacytic (WM) cells, which have characteristics of lymphocytes and plasma cells.

WM cells produce an excess amount of immunoglobulin M (IgM). This type of antibody may cause your blood to thicken, which could affect your organ and tissue function and lead to anemia.

WM cell growth can also cause a reduction in white blood cells. This can make you more susceptible to infection. It may also cause a reduction in blood platelets, which can lead to increased bleeding and bruising.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), up to 1,500 people in the United States are diagnosed with Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia each year.

Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia is also sometimes referred to as lymphoplasmacytic lymphoma or Waldenstrom’s.

Symptoms of Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia vary depending on the severity of your condition. For example, it may take several years before you experience symptoms. The cancer may be discovered during a routine blood test.

The most common symptoms of Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia include:

  • weakness
  • fatigue
  • loss of appetite
  • unintentional weight loss
  • fever
  • night sweats
  • numbness in the feet and legs

Some less common symptoms include:

  • abnormal bleeding, such as nosebleeds
  • blood circulation problems
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • heart problems
  • swollen liver or spleen, causing an enlarged abdomen
  • kidney damage
  • gastrointestinal symptoms, such as diarrhea and bloody stools
  • sensitivity to cold
  • vision problems
  • infections

Symptoms of Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia can be similar to other types of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia develops when your body overproduces IgM antibodies. The cause of this disease is unknown, though it may be due to gene mutations that develop throughout your life.

Some risk factors have been associated with a greater likelihood of developing Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia. That said, it’s important to remember that this condition is very rare and most people will not develop it.

According to the ACS, some risk factors include:

  • Sex: Males are more likely to develop Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia than females.
  • Age: Your risk is higher if you’re age 50 years and older.
  • Race: The authors of a 2020 study found that Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia has a higher incidence rate among white people than among Black people or other racial groups.
  • Heredity: Approximately 1 in 5 people with Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia have a relative with the condition or another B cell condition.
  • Hepatitis C: There may be a link between chronic hepatitis C and Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia. However, not all studies have found a connection between the two.
  • Autoimmune disorders: People with certain autoimmune disorders, including Sjögren’s syndrome, may be at an increased risk of developing Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia.

A doctor will first assess your medical history and perform a physical examination. This may involve asking you about symptoms you could be experiencing, as well as checking for swelling in your spleen, liver, and lymph nodes.

To confirm a diagnosis of Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia, a doctor will need to order additional tests. This is to see if there are lymphoplasmacytic cells in your bone marrow.

Some of these tests may include:

  • blood tests, such as total blood count
  • a bone marrow biopsy
  • CT scans
  • X-rays

CT scans and X-rays of your bones and soft tissues can help differentiate Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia from other diseases, such as multiple myeloma.

There’s no cure for Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia, but a treatment plan can help you manage your symptoms.

Treatment will depend on the severity of your symptoms.

For example, you may not need immediate treatment if your symptoms aren’t serious. If you’ve been diagnosed with Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia but don’t have any symptoms, you should be monitored closely.

Treatment for Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia may include:

  • Chemotherapy: This treatment destroys cells in your body that grow too quickly. For Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia, chemotherapy is designed to attack the abnormal cells producing the excess IgM.
  • Immunomodulators: These oral medications attack cancer cells by starving them from the body’s blood supply, enhancing immune cells, blocking cancer cell and bone marrow interactions, and killing cancer cells.
  • Plasmapheresis: Also known as plasma exchange, this procedure involves a machine removing excess IgM immunoglobulins from your blood. The remaining plasma is then combined with plasma from a donor and returned to your body.
  • Immunotherapy: Also known as biological therapy, this type of treatment boosts your immune system’s ability to fight cancer. Different types of immunotherapy include monoclonal antibodies, immunomodulating drugs, and cytokines.
  • Targeted drug therapy: These help prevent cancer cells from changing and spreading. They target specific proteins and enzymes that cancer cells use to grow and divide.
  • Stem cell transplant: These procedures use stem cells from a person’s blood to help create new blood cells in a person’s bone marrow, enabling them to receive more chemotherapy or radiation therapy. They’re not common for Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia, but they may help younger people if cancer is resistant to other treatments.
  • Radiation therapy: This uses beams of high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells, but it’s not often used to treat Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia.
  • Clinical trials: These are often used to test new treatments or to investigate new ways to use existing treatments.

Your outlook will depend on several factors, including how fast your condition is spreading.

Data collected by the ACS between 2001 and 2010 suggests that people living with Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia have an overall median survival of 8 years after starting treatment.

That said, the disease progresses at different rates for each person.

With the help of a doctor and medical team, you can manage your symptoms and explore new clinical trials.

What is the survival rate for Waldenstrom cancer?

The 5-year relative survival rate is calculated by using data from the International Prognostic Scoring System for Waldenstrom Macroglobulinemia (ISSWM). The 5-year relative survival rates are given for three categories, which each reflect your disease progression:

  • Low: 87%
  • Intermediate: 68%
  • High: 36%

It’s important to remember that survival rates are estimates based on previous outcomes. The 5-year survival rate for Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia has also dramatically increased between the 1980s and 2010s.

Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia is a rare type of cancer that happens when you have an excess number of abnormal white blood cells in the bone marrow.

There’s no known cause for the condition. However, genetics may play a factor.

It’s important to speak with a healthcare professional if you experience any symptoms. Although there’s currently no cure, they can develop a treatment plan to help you manage your symptoms.