Multiple myeloma causes your body to make too many abnormal plasma cells in your bone marrow. Healthy plasma cells fight infections. In multiple myeloma, these abnormal cells reproduce too quickly and form tumors called plasmacytomas.
The goal of multiple myeloma treatment is to kill off the abnormal cells so the healthy blood cells have more room to grow in the bone marrow. Multiple myeloma treatment can involve:
- targeted therapy
- stem cell transplant
The first treatment you’ll get is called induction therapy. It’s meant to kill as many cancer cells as possible. Later, you’ll get maintenance therapy to stop the cancer from growing again.
All of these treatments can have side effects. Chemotherapy can cause hair loss, nausea, and vomiting. Radiation can lead to red, blistered skin. Targeted therapy can lower the number of white blood cells in the body, causing an increased risk of infections.
If you have side effects from your treatment or you don’t think it’s working, don’t just stop taking it. Dropping off your treatment too early could pose real risks. Here are five risks of stopping multiple myeloma treatment.
1. It could shorten your life
Treating multiple myeloma usually requires multiple therapies. After the first phase of treatment, most people will go on maintenance therapy, which can last for years.
Staying on a treatment long-term has its downsides. This includes side effects, repeated tests, and keeping up with a medication routine. The definite upside is that staying on treatment can help you live longer.
2. Your cancer could be hiding out
Even if you feel good, you may have a few stray cancer cells left in your body. People with less than one myeloma cell out of every million cells in their bone marrow are said to have minimal residual disease (MRD).
While one in a million might not sound alarming, even one cell can multiply and form many more if given enough time. Your doctor will test for MRD by taking a sample of blood or fluid from your bone marrow and measuring the number of multiple myeloma cells in it.
Regular counts of your multiple myeloma cells can give your doctor an idea of how long your remission might last, and when you might relapse. Getting tested every three months or so will help catch any stray cancer cells and treat them before they can multiply.
3. You might be ignoring good options
There’s more than one way to treat multiple myeloma, and more than one doctor available to guide you through treatment. If you’re unhappy with your treatment team or the medication you’re taking, seek a second opinion or ask about trying another drug.
Even if your cancer comes back after your first treatment, it’s possible that another therapy will help shrink or slow your cancer. By dropping out of treatment, you’re passing up an opportunity to find the drug or approach that will finally put your cancer to rest.
4. You could develop uncomfortable symptoms
When cancer grows, it pushes into other organs and tissues in your body. This invasion can cause body-wide symptoms.
Multiple myeloma also damages bone marrow, which is the spongy area inside bones where blood cells are made. As cancer grows inside bone marrow, it can weaken the bones to the point where they break. Fractures can be extremely painful.
Uncontrolled multiple myeloma can also lead to symptoms like:
- increased risk of infections from lowered white blood cell counts
- shortness of breath from anemia
- serious bruising or bleeding from low platelets
- extreme thirst, constipation, and frequent urination from high levels of calcium in the blood
- weakness and numbness from nerve damage caused by collapsed bones in the spine
By slowing the cancer, you’ll reduce your risk of having symptoms. Even if your treatment is no longer hindering or stopping your cancer, it may help to manage side effects and keep you comfortable. Treatment aimed at symptom relief is called palliative care.
5. Your odds of surviving have vastly improved
It’s understandable for you to become exhausted by your treatment or its side effects. But if you can hang in there, your chances of surviving multiple myeloma are better than they’ve ever been before.
Treating cancer is never easy. You’ll have to go through multiple doctor’s visits, tests, and therapies. This could last for years. But if you stick with your treatment for the long-term, your odds of controlling or even beating your cancer are better than they’ve ever been.
If you’re struggling to stay with your treatment program, talk to your doctor and the other members of your medical team. There may be medications to help manage your side effects or remedies you can try that are easier for you to tolerate.