Myeloma is a cancer of plasma cells, which develop in the bone marrow. Plasma cells produce antibodies (proteins that are used by the body’s immune system to fight off bacteria and viruses).
In people with myeloma, plasma cells grow in an uncontrolled way and produce an abnormal form of protein called a paraprotein. In some myeloma patients, paraproteins are present in the blood or urine.
The over-production of myeloma cells in the bone marrow affects the production of the different types of cells that make up blood: white cells, red cells and platelets. Myeloma cells may also cause damage to bones, which can leave them prone to breaking.
Myeloma generally develops in older patients, although sometimes it is found in patients under the age of 40.
The signs and symptoms of myeloma vary from patient to patient. They may include the following:
- a feeling of exhaustion
- loss of appetite
- increased bruising of the skin
- fever and recurrent infection
- pain in lower back or ribs and bone fractures.
Some of these symptoms are caused by the increased numbers of myeloma cells and a decrease in the amount of normal blood cells in the blood stream and the bone marrow. Feeling tired and looking pale can be a sign of a lack of red blood cells (anaemia). Bruising of the skin may be caused by a lack of platelets and recurrent infections can result from a lack of white blood cells.
Many of these symptoms occur in other conditions and most patients with these symptoms will not have myeloma.
Damage to the bones caused by myeloma cells can lead to increased amounts of calcium (the main ingredient of bone) in the blood. This is called hypercalcaemia. High calcium can cause dehydration and damage to your kidneys. The levels of calcium in your blood will be monitored to make sure it is not raised. Patients with raised levels will be encouraged to drink as much fluid as they can.