Multiple myeloma is a type of blood cancer that forms in bone marrow. It occurs when a type of blood cell called a plasma cell becomes cancerous and forms a tumor, usually within the bone. If more than one tumor forms, it is known as multiple myeloma.
Cancerous plasma cells can cause anemia and lead to infections. Normal plasma cells help fight infections, but myeloma cells keep the healthy plasma cells from doing their job. Myeloma cells speed up the breakdown of bone and prevent new bone from forming, making breaks and fractures common.
There are no proven special diets to treat multiple myeloma. However, there are specific nutrition strategies that can be used to treat common symptoms, such as kidney damage and anemia, as well as to reduce cancer recurrence.
Despite the lack of evidence to support an alternative diet, proper nutrition with a focus on particular foods still plays a role in the overall health, energy levels, and strength of people with multiple myeloma.
Foods for anemia
Multiple myeloma can cause anemia, a condition where there are too few red blood cells in the body. A decreased amount of red blood cells can cause fatigue and weakness. Anemia can also be caused by iron, folate, and vitamin B-12 deficiencies.
There are two types of iron: heme and non-heme. Animal-based foods provide heme iron and plant foods provide non-heme iron. Heme iron is more readily absorbed by the body. If a person is found to have low iron levels, taking an iron supplement and eating foods high in iron can help.
The best sources of heme iron include:
- red meat
The best sources of non-heme iron include:
- spinach and other leafy greens
A person should be sure to include sources of vitamin C with non-heme iron in their diet to improve absorption. Examples include bell peppers, oranges, berries, and lemon juice.
Folate is a B vitamin that helps with the formation of red and white blood cells in the bone marrow.
Foods that are high in folate include:
- beef liver
- black-eyed peas
- beans (cooked from dried)
Vitamin B-12 works together with folate to form red blood cells. A deficiency in B-12 can further decrease the bone marrow’s ability to make and maintain red blood cells in people with multiple myeloma.
Food sources of B-12 include:
- fortified breakfast cereals
- fortified non-dairy milk, such as soy milk, flax milk, or almond milk
- nutritional yeast
Sources of vitamin D include:
- fortified orange juice
- fortified yogurt and milk
- sockeye salmon, tuna, and sardines
- egg yolks
Recent studies show promising benefits of certain vegetables and fruits for cancer prevention and complementary treatment.
Ursolic acid is found in many plants and has been shown to be cytotoxic, which can inhibit a variety of cancer cells.
Foods with ursolic acid include:
Cruciferous vegetables, such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, contain nutrients called isothiocyanates that exhibit anti-myeloma properties.
Curcumin, which is found in the spice turmeric, has also shown anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer benefits.
Overall, a diet rich in plant foods and low in sugar is helpful for cancer prevention as well as support during treatment.
There are some foods people with multiple myeloma may wish to avoid to reduce their symptoms.
Foods to avoid with kidney damage
People with multiple myeloma can develop kidney damage. The breakdown of bone releases high amounts of calcium and protein into the bloodstream, which the kidneys work hard to filter out.
As kidney function declines, people with multiple myeloma may need to limit their intake of potassium, phosphorus, and fluids.
Foods that are high in potassium include:
- spinach and other leafy greens
Foods that are high in phosphorus include:
- whole-grain bread
- bran cereals
- nuts and sunflower seeds
For people who do not have multiple myeloma, foods that are high in potassium and phosphorus are not harmful. However, for those whose kidneys cannot filter out these minerals, a build-up of potassium and phosphorus can be dangerous.
A doctor will closely follow the kidney function of someone with multiple myeloma to see if potassium or phosphorus need to be monitored.
Foods to avoid during chemotherapy
While cancer itself can damage a person’s immune system, so can cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy. Damage to a person’s immune system can put them at a higher risk for infection.
Hand washing and staying away from people who are sick are essential for people with a weakened immune system.
Some foods can also cause further illness and infection in a person who is receiving chemotherapy. While someone with a healthy immune system can fight off pathogens in food, someone with decreased immunity would benefit from avoiding foods that could contain a food-borne illness or bacteria.
Foods to avoid:
- raw or undercooked meats, seafood, and poultry
- deli meats that have not been reheated to a safe internal temperature
- unpasteurized dairy
- raw sprouts
- uncooked eggs or foods containing them, such as cookie dough
To safely cook and prepare food for a compromised immune system, a person should:
- avoid fruits and vegetables that are bruised or damaged
- wash all produce thoroughly
- do not eat foods past their ‘best before’ or expiration date
- do not leave perishable food out at room temperature
- keep raw meats and poultry in separate bags at the grocery store, and keep them away from each other in the refrigerator.
According to the American Cancer Society, multiple myeloma is a relatively rare cancer and occurs in about 1 in 143 people. The median survival rate for stage I multiple myeloma is 62 months, meaning that at 62 months, half of the people in that group were still alive.
However, treatments are constantly evolving, and many people with multiple myeloma may be able to take part in clinical trials that test new medications and treatments.
Eating a healthful diet that reduces the symptoms of multiple myeloma and the side effects of chemotherapy can help improve a person’s quality of life and keep them strong and comfortable during treatment.