What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Myeloma?

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Myeloma (also called multiple myeloma) is a cancer that forms in white blood cells. It typically affects the bones as the cancerous cells accumulate in a person’s bone marrow. The signs and symptoms of myeloma vary with each person and stage of the disease and range from bone pain to loss of appetite.

Bone Pain and Bone Weakness

Myeloma directly affects the bones. It forms in plasma cells, which are a type of white blood cell. The cancerous plasma cells begin to accumulate in bone marrow, making it difficult for healthy new blood cells to spread around your body. Due to this process, one of the first symptoms of myeloma is pain in the bones. The pain is often more intense in the spine or chest area, but it also frequently develops in the hip and skull bones.

Myeloma-related bone pain may be accompanied by weakness or numbness in your legs. The weakness and numbness may be generalized throughout your body or localized to a certain spot on your legs. Frequent bone fractures are another sign of myeloma.

Blood Issues

Three types of blood issues may be early warning symptoms of myeloma cancer. These include anemia, leukopenia and thrombocytopenia.

Anemia is a condition that describes having a reduced number of red blood cells. If you’re anemic, your energy levels may be low, and you may feel weak. Anemia can also cause shortness of breath and make it difficult to exert yourself. 

Leukopenia is a condition that happens when you have a reduced white blood cell count. It can limit your body’s ability to fight infections, which makes you more susceptible to colds and diseases. Your body also may have trouble healing wounds. 

Thrombocytopenia describes a reduced blood platelet count. Platelets are a type of cell that helps your blood clot. When you cut yourself, you may notice abnormal bleeding, even if it’s just a small scrape. This condition can also cause excessive bruising.

Loss of Appetite and Excessive Thirst

Gastrointestinal symptoms and thirst are common early signs of multiple myeloma. You may experience stomachaches, nausea and a loss of appetite. Severe constipation is another related stomach issue that myeloma can cause.

Excessive thirst and frequent urination are other signs of myeloma. This type of cancer can cause a condition called hypercalcemia, which means you have elevated levels of calcium in your blood. This condition causes extreme thirst, but it also often results in dehydration. Hypercalcemia can also lead to a loss of appetite.

Fatigue and Confusion

Myeloma can cause your blood to thicken, leading to a condition called hyperviscosity. It’s harder for your heart to pump this thickened blood around your body. As a result, less blood may be flowing to your brain, which can cause confusion and dizziness. Hyperviscosity can also mimic the symptoms of a stroke, such as slurred speech and weakness on one side of the body.

Fatigue resulting from myeloma may be due to anemia or the persistent pain that accompanies this type of cancer, but it may also be due to the presence of cytokines in your body. Cytokines are molecules that, in high quantities, can boost cancer cells’ growth and prevent those cells from dying quickly. This results in fatigue that’s similar to what you feel when you have the flu.

Impaired Kidney Function

Elevating your calcium levels isn’t the only way myeloma can affect your kidneys. When you have myeloma, your plasma cells start to create abnormal proteins. These proteins can begin to outnumber the healthy red blood cells in your body. This can cause anemia, but it can also result in reduced kidney function because the proteins cause kidney damage and eventually cause those organs to fail. As myeloma progresses, the kidneys lose the ability to remove the salts, fluids and waste products from your body. You may feel weak, short of breath or itchy due to decreased kidney function. This may also cause your legs to swell.

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High Calcium Levels

Multiple myeloma can cause your bones to begin breaking down, and this releases calcium into your body. Although your doctor has to do blood tests or bone scans to determine how much calcium is in your blood and bones, you may experience some symptoms that are related to elevated calcium levels. You may frequently feel thirsty and also dehydrated, and you might start urinating more often. High calcium levels can also cause constipation and abdominal pain. In severe cases, you might feel confused, weak and drowsy. It’s also common to lose your appetite when your calcium levels are much higher than normal. 

This symptom may even impact your kidneys. Typically, your kidneys can filter the excess calcium out of your body. But when the calcium builds up to very high levels, your kidneys can have difficulty keeping up and removing it at a quick enough rate.

Nerve Problems

Depending on the bones that myeloma affects, this type of cancer can also cause nerve issues. Myeloma proteins can damage your nerves and create a lingering pins-and-needles sensation that commonly shows up in your hands and feet. However, because multiple myeloma can also affect your bones, it can damage the bones in your spine. The cancer may cause your spine to compress, which can put pressure on your nerves. If this happens, you might experience numbness and muscle weakness, particularly in your limbs and especially in your legs. Your back might also start to hurt suddenly. If you experience this pain or weakness, get emergency medical care right away.