What Is Multiple Myeloma?
In multiple myeloma, a type of white blood cell called a plasma cell multiplies unusually. Normally, they make antibodies that fight infections. But in multiple myeloma, they release too much protein (called immunoglobulin) into your bones and blood. It builds up throughout your body and causes organ damage.
The plasma cells also crowd normal blood cells in your bones. They release chemicals that trigger other cells to dissolve bone. The weak areas of bone this creates are called lytic lesions.
As multiple myeloma gets worse, those plasma cells begin to spill out of your bone marrow and spread through your body. This causes more organ damage.
No one knows what causes multiple myeloma. But you’re more likely to get it if:
- You’re older than 65
- You’re African-American
- You have a family member with it
If you have one these other plasma cell diseases, you may be more likely to get multiple myeloma:
- Monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS)
- Solitary plasmacytoma
Early on, multiple myeloma may cause no symptoms. As time passes, you may have:
- Bone pain
- Weakness and fatigue
- Weight loss
Getting a Diagnosis
Your doctor may test you for multiple myeloma if a blood test shows you have:
- Too much calcium in your blood (your doctor may call it hypercalcemia)
- Anemia (too few red blood cells)
- Kidney problems
- High protein levels in your blood, along with a low albumin level (your doctor may say you have a “globulin gap”)
If your doctor thinks you have multiple myeloma, he may order blood tests:
- A CBC, which stands for complete blood count. It measures the different kinds of cells in your blood.
- Blood urea nitrogen, also known as BUN, and creatinine. These check how well your kidneys are working.
Other specialized blood and urine tests check for how much and what kinds of abnormal proteins your body is making.
After your test results come in, your doctor may want to do a bone marrow biopsy. He’ll put a needle into a bone, usually in your hip, to get a sample of bone marrow to check the number of plasma cells in it.
He may also want you to get X-rays. They can show spots of bone weakened by multiple myeloma. Sometimes you may also need a CT scan, MRI, or PET scan.
Multiple myeloma cases are usually graded as high, intermediate, or standard risk.