Maybe your doctor told you that some of the tests you had during a routine exam were abnormal. Now they think you might have multiple myeloma. Or maybe you’ve had the same symptoms for a long time and you aren’t sure when you should go to the doctor. You might even have a family history of multiple myeloma or another plasma cell disorder. What now?
Here’s what you need to know about multiple myeloma symptoms and diagnosis.
A Diagnosis May Take Time
Multiple myeloma can be a difficult type of cancer to diagnose. For one thing, some people have no symptoms. For another, when you do have symptoms, they’re often similar to symptoms of other illnesses. This means the doctor may diagnose you with something else first.
Then there’s the fact that multiple myeloma is pretty rare. If you live in the United States, your risk of developing it during your lifetime is less than 1%. In other words, multiple myeloma probably isn’t going to be one of the first conditions your doctor suspects.
Symptoms Can Be Vague
Some multiple myeloma symptoms are similar to those you’d have with other conditions like the flu, arthritis, or diabetes. You may not even notice them, or you might just chalk them up to something else.
And as noted, not everyone with multiple myeloma has symptoms. And for those who do, they vary from person to person. Symptoms include:
- Pain in your bones, usually in your back, hips, and skull
- Breaking your bones easily or frequently
- Digestive issues like nausea, constipation, or loss of appetite
- Feeling confused
- Frequent infections
- Losing weight
- Extreme thirst
- Numbness or weakness that’s usually in your legs
- Shortness of breath
- Bleeding or bruising easily and more than usual
- Frequent urination
Certain Symptoms Warrant a Doctor’s Visit
Any symptoms that don’t go away and that concern you are worth a visit to your doctor.
Sometimes myeloma can cause complications, even before it’s diagnosed. If this happens, you need to see your doctor right away or go to the emergency room. Here’s what to look for.
Spinal Cord Compression
Symptoms of spinal cord compression include:
- Severe back pain that comes on suddenly
- Numbness (usually in your legs)
- Weakness (usually in your legs)
Myeloma cells can make a higher than normal amount of proteins in your blood. Hyperviscosity happens when these proteins cause your blood to thicken and it can’t flow like it’s supposed to.
If hyperviscosity slows down your brain’s blood flow, you may have symptoms such as:
- Stroke-like symptoms (feeling numb or weak on one side of your body, slurred speech, severe headache, or vision disturbances)
You should call your doctor right away if you have these symptoms.
Kidney Damage and Failure
If you notice changes in your urination patterns, especially if you’re peeing less than usual, see your doctor. This could be a sign that your kidneys aren’t working right.
If it’s left untreated, over time this damage leads to kidney failure.
Symptoms of kidney failure include:
- Shortness of breath
- Swelling in your legs
Your Doctor May Suspect Multiple Myeloma Before You Do
Sometimes, doctors find signs of multiple myeloma during a normal, routine exam, even when you don’t have any symptoms. For instance, your doctor may order blood and urine tests as part of your annual physical.
When you have multiple myeloma, these tests can come back with abnormal results such as:
- Low red blood cell counts, white blood cell counts, and platelet counts, which are common in multiple myeloma
- High levels of calcium in your blood, called hypercalcemia
- Abnormal proteins in your blood or urine
If you have repeat infections that take a long time to go away, especially pneumonia, your doctor may begin to suspect multiple myeloma. This can be the first obvious symptom for some people.
You’ll Probably Have Many Tests
If you’ve already had abnormal lab findings in your blood and urine, you’ll still need other tests to confirm multiple myeloma. These may include:
Your Medical History Matters
If you have a brother, sister, or parent with multiple myeloma, your risk of getting it is higher than someone without this family history. That said, most people who have multiple myeloma don’t have any relatives who have it.
When you have another plasma cell disease like monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS) or solitary plasmacytoma, your risk of developing multiple myeloma is also higher. In fact, multiple myeloma nearly always begins as MGUS. Still, not everyone with MGUS develops cancer.
Be sure to let your doctor know if you have any of these risk factors.