Myeloma is a cancer that develops from cells in the bone marrow known as plasma cells. It can develop wherever there are plasma cells in the body, for example in the spine, skull, ribcage, long bones in the arms and legs or pelvis. As it can occur in multiple places in the body it is also sometimes known as multiple myeloma. It is a relatively rare cancer, with under 5,000 people diagnosed in the UK every year. The majority of myeloma sufferers are aged 65 or over and it is twice as common in people of African descent.
Whereas plasma cells usually produce antibodies to help fight infection and form part of your immune system, in myeloma, too many plasma cells are made and crowd the bone marrow resulting in insufficient space for white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets and an excess of paraproteins being produced. It is usually through the measurement of these paraproteins that myeloma is diagnosed and treated.
Unlike most other cancers, myeloma does not present as a lump or tumour. Instead the abnormal plasma cells multiply and expand within the bone marrow. Myeloma is a relapsing-remitting cancer, meaning that there are times when it is causing symptoms and needs to be treated, and times when it is in remission and does not require treatment.
As Myeloma does not present as a lump or tumour it can be hard to diagnose. Diagnosis is usually via a blood test to measure paraprotein levels. The presence and level of paraproteins in the blood is a strong indicator of active myeloma.
A bone marrow biopsy is also sometimes carried out to confirm a diagnosis, usually taken from the hip bone. Finally, x-rays may be performed as myeloma can thin or damage the bones.
Symptoms of Myeloma
In many patients there are no obvious symptoms at diagnosis; just abnormal blood tests that indicate a problem. Common symptoms however include:
This can be a result of bone disease that often occurs in myeloma. The back, hips and rib cage are the most commonly affected areas. The pain is often a persistent dull ache, frequently made worse with movement.
Fractures can occur with only minor pressure or force and are may be a sign of bone marrow disease.
Fatigue is a common symptom of myeloma but is also a symptom of many other conditions and on its own is unlikely to lead to a diagnosis.
A drop in the number of red blood cells can occur as a result of myeloma and can cause weakness and breathlessness.
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