What is bone marrow cancer?
Bone marrow cancer, also known as myeloma, is a severe form of cancer that usually affects people over 60 years, and is among the 20 most common cancer types in the UK. Cancer in the bone marrow is characterised by an uncontrollable growth of a specific type of bone marrow cells, called ‘plasma cells’, which are a type of white blood cells. Plasma cells are important to our immune system as they form antibodies that attach themselves to the surface of the foreign pathogenic bacteria in the body and help fight the infection.
People suffering from bone marrow cancer can only form 1 type of antibodies, and this leads to a deteriorated immune system. Moreover, an increased growth of sick plasma cells reduces the production of the other types of white blood cells, which further reduces the body’s defence mechanism against infections. The production of other blood cells, including red blood cells and squamous cells, is also reduced. Therefore, patients with bone marrow cancer may suffer from blood loss (anaemia) and a tendency to bleed.
What are the symptoms of bone marrow cancer?
Bone marrow cancer can lead to a number of symptoms and conditions that affect the patient’s everyday life considerably, including:
Blood loss (anaemia): This causes fatigue, dizziness, reduced performance, palpitations, shortness of breath, ear ringing and headaches.
Affected bones: This increases the risk of bone fractures and osteoporosis, which causes pain in the bones.
Impaired immune system: This increases the risk of infections, causing frequent fatigue, fever, shivers and more.
Bleeding from the skin and mucous membranes.
Kidney failure: This can be a complication to bone marrow cancer, and it is characterised by fatigue, nausea, thirst, itching and an accumulation of fluids in the body.
What are the causes of bone marrow cancer?
What causes bone marrow cancer is more or less still unknown. One of the factors believed to be involved in the development of the disease, is ionising radiation, which is caused from exposure to i.e. sunbeds, X-ray examinations and nuclear power plants. In the case of bone marrow cancer, changes have occurred in the behaviour of the plasma cells for unknown reasons, causing them to begin to divide uncontrollably. This results in an increased number of non-functional plasma cells that are then stored in the bone marrow, reducing the production of the other blood cells in the bone marrow, herein red blood cells, plate cells and other white blood cells. The accumulated plasma cells are capable of producing a molecule which stimulates the bone decomposing cells, causing thin and fragile bones.
What are the treatments for bone marrow cancer?
Bone marrow cancer cannot be cured, but the symptoms can sometimes be relieved to prolong the patient’s life. The treatment often consists of chemotherapy or radiation therapy; either separately or combined. Chemotherapy usually has a positive effect on bone marrow cancer as it inhibits the growth of plasma cells and prolongs the lifespan of most patients. Some patients under 65 years are offered a transplantation of stem cells. Here, the patient initially undergoes a few series of chemotherapy, after which stem cells are extracted from the blood. When the stem cells have been extracted, the patient is given cytotoxic, which kills the remaining sick cells in the bone marrow. 2-3 days later, the stem cells are injected back into the blood along with fresh blood, and the stem cells will then settle in the bone marrow again.
After about 12 days, the bone marrow once again begins to produce blood. The stem cell transplantation often requires hospitalisation for 2-3 weeks. The treatment is associated with an increased chance of stopping the growth of the tumour and to prolong the patient’s life. If the cancer has not spread, and there is only a single cancer tumour, there is a chance that it can be treated with radiation therapy. In addition, the patient’s symptoms can be treated. The patient can be given analgesics against bone pain and bone stabilising drugs to reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis and bone fractures. Antibiotics are given for infections. Fluids can also be injected into the bloodstream to treat disturbances in the electrolytes and to cleanse the blood of any non-functional antibodies if these are accumulating, thus increasing the viscosity of the blood too much.