I would like to begin this week’s article with a deeply sincere appreciation for the outpouring of emails, cards, well wishes and words of encouragement from my readers, patients, friends, family and even strangers. This support will go a long way in getting me through my recent diagnosis of multiple myeloma. I’ve survived my first two weeks of chemotherapy and feel fine, except for the persistent back pain.
Although described as being somewhat uncommon, I’m aware of a number of people who have had multiple myeloma and many more who are acquainted with or related to someone with the disease. The good news is that most of them are doing well. I like to hear that.
So what is multiple myeloma? It is a cancer that causes an over production of plasma cells — a type of white blood cell found in the bone marrow. Plasma cells function to produce antibodies which are necessary for our immune system to fight infections. In multiple myeloma, the growth of the cancerous cells causes them to produce an over-accumulation of a certain protein called immunoglobulin that travels throughout the body and can cause damage to various organs.
The other problem, as in my case, is that the plasma cells can enter normal healthy bone causing osteoporosis as well as causing local areas of bone weakness leading to bone fractures, such as I have in my spine. I also have the typical anemia because the plasma cells crowd out the red blood cells in the marrow.
The cause of multiple myeloma remains a mystery, however there are some associated risk factors such as:
- Being over age 65.
- Being a male.
- Being African-American.
- Having a family member with multiple myeloma.
Early stages of multiple myeloma may cause no symptoms. However, as the disease progresses, plasma cells accumulate in the bones and other tissues causing these symptoms:
- Unexplainable persistent pain in any location of the body especially the back.
- Extreme weakness and fatigue.
- Unintended weight loss.
- Recurring infections.
After seeing your doctor for any of these symptoms, you will have some blood tests done and if there is some indication that you may have multiple myeloma you will be referred to a doctor specializing in blood and cancer diseases. Further testing can prove or disprove whether or not one has multiple myeloma.
Therapeutic options include the one I just began, which is undergoing up to four months of chemotherapy followed by a stem cell transplant which I will explain in more detail as I get further along with my treatment.
What I have learned from my experience is that it is important to recognize early symptoms and see your doctor about your concerns. As with any cancer, the sooner it is detected and treated the better the chance of survival. If you or a loved one have any of the above-mentioned risk factors and unexplainable symptoms, see your doctor.
- Terry Hollenbeck, M.D., is an urgent-care physician at Palo Alto Medical Foundation Santa Cruz in Scotts Valley. Readers can view his previous columns on his website, valleydoctor.wordpress.com, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information in this column is not intended to replace advice from your own health care professional. For any medical concern, consult your own doctor.