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Multiple Myeloma: A Form of Blood Cancer You’ve Probably Never Heard Of
By Sara Ashraf, MD
You’ve probably heard of leukemia and lymphoma, but, more than likely, you’re not aware of a type of blood cancer known as multiple myeloma.
Multiple myeloma occurs in white blood cells known as plasma. Typically, plasma cells help you fight infections by making antibodies to attack germs. However, when you have multiple myeloma, abnormal cells collect in their blood marrow, leaving no room for the healthy ones. These cancerous cells produce a type of irregular protein, which can lead to many health issues, including frequent infections, reduced kidney function, and anemia.
Signs and Symptoms of Multiple Myeloma
The hallmark symptom of multiple myeloma is bone pain. It often occurs in the back, the hips, and sometimes the skull. Some patients may experience pain that is worse at night, which disrupts their sleep. When you have multiple myeloma, your bones may easily break.
Other symptoms of multiple myeloma include:
- Loss of appetite
- Mental fogginess or confusion
- Fatigue and lethargy
- Frequent infections
- Weight loss
- Weakness or numbness in your legs
- Excessive thirst
- Abdominal pain
- Kidney problems
The symptoms of multiple myeloma vary from person to person, and sometimes you won’t have any symptoms at all.
Your doctor might suspect you have multiple myeloma if you have low blood counts (red, white, and blood platelets). It is routinely diagnosed through blood and urine tests, an examination of your bone marrow, and imaging, including computed tomography (CT) scans, positron emission tomography (PET) scans, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Why Someone May Get Multiple Myeloma
Doctors aren’t quite sure what causes multiple myeloma. Several factors might put someone at a higher risk of developing it. These factors include:
- Being male – Research has shown that men are more prone to developing multiple myeloma than women.
- Family history – If a family member has been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, you are two to three times more likely to develop the disease than someone who doesn’t have a family history.
- Your age – Multiple myeloma occurs most commonly in people over 60. Cases of multiple myeloma in people under the age of 40 are pretty rare.
- Ethnicity – Doctors aren’t sure why, but Black people are more likely to be diagnosed with multiple myeloma. The disease is often more prevalent in people of Middle Eastern, North African, and Mediterranean descent.
- Radiation or chemical exposure – If you have frequently been exposed to radiation or chemicals such as asbestos, benzene, and pesticides, it may put you at a higher risk of developing multiple myeloma. Studies have also shown that firefighters exposed to herbicides also are at greater risk.
Treatment Options for Multiple Myeloma
Sometimes, treatment for multiple myeloma isn’t needed right away, especially if you don’t have any symptoms. If the cancer cells are slow-growing and you’re not experiencing any signs or symptoms, your doctor may delay treatment and closely monitor you. If you do require treatments, options may include:
- Targeted drug therapy
- Use of corticosteroid medications
- Bone marrow transplant
- Radiation treatment
How to Cope
A cancer diagnosis of any kind can be overwhelming. So, it’s essential to find ways to manage your disease. Here are some suggestions you might find helpful:
- Become knowledgeable about multiple myeloma. Knowledge is power. Learning about your disease from reputable resources such as the National Cancer Institute and the International Myeloma Foundation may make discussions with your treatment team less daunting.
- Find a strong support system. Having a solid network of friends and family you can rely on is vital with any cancer diagnosis. You might also find strength in speaking with others who have gone through a similar experience.
- Take care of yourself. Throughout your cancer journey, it’s essential to eat well, get adequate sleep, and take time to relax. These actions will help you battle the fatigue and stress that often go hand in hand with a diagnosis of multiple myeloma.
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