Multiple myeloma is cancer that affects bone marrow and a type of blood cell known as plasma cells. The cancer damages bones and prevents the body from making healthy blood cells.
There is currently no cure for multiple myeloma, but treatment is available. In this article, we explain the staging and progression, as well as life expectancy and outlook.
Myeloma creates abnormal plasma cells, leaving less room for the normal white and red blood cells that keep the body healthy.
When the myeloma cells divide and grow, they can cause damage to the bones and affect the blood, kidneys, and immune system.
All cancers are given stage numbers that refer to how far the disease has progressed in an individual. This can help doctors decide on the best course of treatment. It will also give them an idea of how the cancer is likely to progress.
Doctors use the international staging system (ISS) to determine the stage of the disease. Multiple myeloma is given a stage number of 1, 2, or 3 based on the results of two blood tests.
The stages of myeloma are:
- Smoldering: Non-active disorder, no symptoms.
- Stage 1: Early in the disease, no symptoms.
- Stage 2: The cancer is progressing and causing multiple symptoms.
- Stage 3: Cancer is in multiple parts of the body and a person will experience complex symptoms.
Life expectancy means how long a person with stage 3 multiple myeloma might expect to live once treatment begins. It can also be called the survival rate or median survival.
Median survival is found using data from a large group of people with multiple myeloma. This figure is the amount of time between first treatment and death.
Scientists find the median by looking at half of the people in the study. This means that it is approximate and is not an exact prediction of life expectancy.
The American Cancer Society guidelines for the life expectancy of people with multiple myeloma are:
Everyone is different, so a person's age, their treatment, and other factors will affect their outlook. A doctor will be able to look at an individual's specific situation and give the person a more accurate estimate.
As multiple myeloma progresses, a person is likely to experience more symptoms of the disease. They may also experience bothersome side effects from medication and treatment.
Multiple myeloma often weakens the bones and may cause fractures. Bones in the spine can collapse and damage the spinal cord, which is a collection of nerves in the back. This may cause a tingling feeling or numbness in the legs and feet.
Bones may become damaged, fractured, or painful. Bone damage may put pressure on the spine and cause back pain.
Multiple myeloma can prevent the body from making enough healthy red blood cells. When there are not enough red blood cells in the body, a person may develop anemia. Anemia can make a person feel very tired, weak, or short of breath.
Multiple myeloma and its treatments can also damage the kidneys. If the kidneys stop working properly, a person may experience a range of symptoms including tiredness, itchy skin, swollen ankles, losing weight or not wanting to eat, and nausea.
Additionally, multiple myeloma can weaken a person's immune system. The immune system protects the body from disease, so a person may become more susceptible to serious infections.
If a person has symptoms of an infection, such as a raised temperature and increased heart rate, they should seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Many of these symptoms can be managed with medication and treatment. A person with multiple myeloma will need regular checkup appointments to monitor the progression of the disease and whether treatment is working.
People with multiple myeloma should always seek medical attention if their symptoms change or get worse.
While there is no cure for multiple myeloma, treatment is available. Treatment aims to improve a person's quality of life and prevent the cancer spreading further.
Treatment can also help with symptoms caused by multiple myeloma, such as bone pain and lack of energy.
A person with multiple myeloma that is stage 2 or higher will probably be offered medication to help keep their bones strong if the cancer has weakened them. A combination of drugs, including chemotherapy drugs, usually works best.
Multiple myeloma stops stem cells from working properly. These are the cells that create new blood cells. A stem cell transplant replaces diseased stem cells with healthy ones and is often used to treat this form of cancer.
A person with multiple myeloma is likely to have a low blood count. This means that they have fewer blood cells than average and may need a transfusion.
Antibiotics and painkillers can help to treat any infections and relieve pain.
Clinical trials help medical professionals find better ways to treat illness and disease. A person having treatment for multiple myeloma may be asked to take part in a clinical trial to test new treatments and medications.
Living with cancer can be challenging, so it helps to have support from friends, family, and support groups with other people who have multiple myeloma. People may also find support from charitable organizations and online communities.
There are some lifestyle changes that a person with multiple myeloma can make to help them cope with symptoms. These include:
- keeping active and mobile
- eating a healthful diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables
- drinking plenty of fluids
- having a flu vaccination every year
People can also choose some complementary therapies, such as massage or meditation, to reduce stress and improve their overall well-being. It is essential to use these therapies alongside traditional cancer treatment.
The average life expectancies for people with multiple myeloma are only approximations, as each person is different and will react to treatment differently. Living for longer than the average is possible, and treatments are constantly advancing through clinical trials.
Understanding life expectancy and outlook can help someone to plan, find support, and decide on the best treatment for them.