Besides acting as your body’s scaffolding system, your bones house marrow, a soft, spongy tissue that manufactures red blood cells, platelets and white blood cells—a mainstay of your immune system. Some white blood cells develop into plasma cells that emit disease–fighting antibodies in response to infection.
The body has many types of plasma cells, each of which produces a specific antibody. Sometimes cancer attacks a type of plasma cell, causing it to mutate and multiply rapidly. As a result, the body becomes flooded with identical abnormal plasma cells, called myeloma cells. The myeloma cells crowd the bone marrow, producing antibodies the body doesn’t need and weakening the bones themselves. This condition is called multiple myeloma.
The proliferation of abnormal cells damages and weakens bones, causing pain and fractures. Back and rib pain that is relieved by rest and aggravated by movement is a common symptom.
The damaged bones may cause excess calcium to enter the bloodstream, a condition called hypercalcemia. This can cause a loss of appetite, nausea, fatigue, muscle weakness, confusion and other symptoms.
Myeloma cells prevent the formation of normal plasma cells and other white blood cells, wreaking havoc with the immune system. They also may interfere with production of red blood cells, leading to anemia. The excess antibodies and calcium in the bloodstream overload the kidneys, preventing the organs from filtering blood properly.
Doctors diagnose the disease by testing a bone marrow sample and checking bone X–rays. Blood tests can also support the diagnosis.
Although there is no cure for multiple myeloma, treament can help patients live a full life. In its earliest stages, doctors may advise patients to take a wait–and–see approach and begin therapy when needed. For other patients, a combination of chemotherapy drugs can help kill myeloma cells. Doctors are also experimenting with new drugs and drug combinations and focusing on biological therapy, which aims to boost the immune system’s response to cancer. Radiation may also be targeted to specific sites to ease pain and control tumor growth.
People with multiple myeloma can help manage their condition by being as active as they can. Exercise helps reduce calcium loss and keep bones as strong as possible. To bolster the immune system, patients should eat a nutritious diet, drink plenty of fluids and avoid infection.
Regular checkups help ensure that problems are detected and treated early. Patients can aid their physicians by reporting any new or unusual symptoms as well as fever or any other sign of infection.