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Signs of Bone Marrow Cancer

min read

By Emily Lockhart

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Gerald Morris

Forming in white blood cells known as plasma cells, multiple myeloma causes cancer cells to emerge in the bone marrow. Over time, these cancerous cells begin to push out healthy plasma cells, which are responsible for fighting infections and producing the antibodies required to lead the fight against germs and infection. Instead, the cancerous cells produced by multiple myeloma result in the production of abnormal proteins that eventually cause significant health problems for the afflicted kidney issues in particular.

Because multiple myeloma targets healthy cells in the bone marrow, it’s often referred to as bone marrow cancer. As with any form of cancer, the key is being able to identify the signs and symptoms of the illness and take action before it becomes too serious. So, what exactly are the symptoms of multiple myeloma?

1. Exhaustion/Fatigue

One of the earliest signs of multiple myeloma is a general feeling of exhaustion that fails to go away, even when one gets lots of rest and follows a healthy diet. These feelings of fatigue are usually related to the way multiple myeloma attacks the healthy cells of the bone marrow, which in many cases can result in anemia.

Because feelings of fatigue are fairly common, this symptom should be considered in combination with other signs of multiple myeloma on this list. For example, someone who has a family history of cancer, especially bone marrow cancer, will want to be tested for multiple myeloma if they suddenly experience a long, generally unbreaking wave of exhaustion lasting several days or weeks.

2. Anemia

Anemia, which occurs when the number of red blood cells reaches critically low levels, results from multiple myeloma because it causes the suppression or crowding out of healthy red blood cells. The most common side effect of anemia is an overpowering feeling of fatigue that may not break, even with a healthy diet, ample rest, fluids, or stimulants (such as caffeine). This feeling of general exhaustion can last for days or even weeks at a time.

However, it should be noted that anemia is not only related to multiple myeloma. It can result from a number of other health conditions, from pregnancy and menstruation to iron and vitamin deficiency. Simply failing to get enough iron in the diet can cause anemia.

3. Bone Pain

One of the more obvious and distinct signs of multiple myeloma is bone pain. This is because multiple myeloma forms in the bone marrow and, as time goes on, the suppression of healthy red blood cells can cause the bone to thin and weaken, resulting in osteoporosis. Once this stage is reached, the chances of fracturing (or completely breaking) the affected bone increases substantially.

It also results in mild to moderate pain in and around the bone. This pain may be more noticeable if the problem involves particularly critical bones, such as the spine, which are responsible for supporting multiple parts of the body. This pain tends to increase with movement and may be considerably more noticeable during the evening and early morning hours. If the spine is affected, the patient may experience compression fractures that cause slumping; over time, this could even result in a patient losing a few inches from their height.

4. Numbness

Because multiple myeloma targets the healthy red blood cells of the bone marrow, in time, it can cause the patient’s bones to weaken. While this often results in the affected bones becoming more frail and painful, it can also lead to general feelings of numbness.

This sensation of numbness is most pronounced when multiple myeloma invades the vertebrae of the spine. As the problem spreads through the spine, it causes the bones to weaken, resulting in vertebrae coming into contact with each other and the compression of adjacent spinal nerves. In touching upon these highly sensitive nerves, multiple myeloma effectively scrambles the signal traveling between the brain and spine, leaving the area feeling numb.

5. Kidney Problems

If not caught early on, multiple myeloma can eventually lead to significant problems in the kidney. This is because the development of multiple myeloma results in the emergence of proteins that, when produced in excess (as they often are when multiple myeloma occurs) can put undue pressure on the kidneys, resulting in damage or even kidney failure.

Ideally, the patient would recognize other signs and symptoms of multiple myeloma (such as excessive fatigue or bone pain) and be able to take action prior to reaching the stage where kidney problems emerge. However, should those signs not raise flags, the emergence of kidney-related issues should be identified as a possible sign of multiple myeloma.

6. Hypercalcemia

Over time, multiple myeloma results in the production of cancerous cells that effectively push healthy cells out of the bone marrow. This makes the bone feel weak, painful, and potentially numb. In time, it could cause the bone to fracture.

This wearing down of the bones through multiple myeloma also results in a condition known as hypercalcemia, which emerges when there is an excessive amount of calcium in the blood. Hypercalcemia is often found in people with multiple myeloma, because their bones, which contain calcium, are effectively breaking down. Hypercalcemia introduces its own, rather significant health problems, from exhaustion to constipation and kidney issues.

7. Weight Loss

Many people struggle with their weight, particularly if they are not physically active or if they have unhealthy diets based on excessive consumption of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. In essence, most people will have a hard time losing weight unless they take demonstrable steps to be more active and eat well.

But weight loss can occur rapidly if someone is struggling with multiple myeloma. That’s because the condition leads to many symptoms that can suppress the appetite, from exhaustion to excessive pain. The condition can also make it difficult to exercise and burn calories, which tends to help boost the metabolism and increase one’s appetite. In short, if an individual has not changed their diet and is not excessively active but still manages to lose weight, there may be an underlying and significant health problem.

8. Mental Confusion

Feelings of general confusion can result from many of the symptoms associated with multiple myeloma, including hypercalcemia and kidney damage. In essence, as the body struggles with the breakdown of the bone marrow, it can send confusing signals to the brain.

For this reason, mental confusion rarely emerges during the early stages of multiple myeloma, when the body is still generally healthy. Instead, feelings of confusion become far more evident later on, when the condition has caused several serious side effects to emerge.

9. Frequent Illnesses

Multiple myeloma causes the breakdown of the bones by invading the bone marrow, where it effectively crowds out healthy cells with cancerous cells. Not only does this present serious problems for the patient in the way of bone decay but also reduces the number of healthy cells capable of helping fighting infections, such as colds and pneumonia.

In time, multiple myeloma can weaken the patient’s immune system, making them more susceptible to infections. In effect, this can make the patient feel as though they’re constantly battling illnesses. Not only that, but multiple myeloma can make it more difficult for the body to beat and recover from infections, particularly those affecting the respiratory tract and lungs.

MD, Family Medicine, Internal Medicine

Gerald Morris, MD is a family medicine/internal medicine physician with over 20 years expertise in the medical arena. Dr. Morris has spent time as a clinician, clinical research coordinator/manager, medical writer, and instructor. He is a proponent of patient education as a tool in the diagnosis and treatment of acute and chronic medical conditions.

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