Bone Marrow Cancer: A Guide to Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment
Bone marrow cancer forms in the blood-forming cells of the bone marrow. Bone marrow is sponge-like tissue in the center-most areas of some bones.
Bone marrow contains stem cells. These cells form new red and white blood cells and platelets. Other cells within bone marrow include plasma.
The symptoms of bone marrow cancer depend on where in the body it forms and the type of cancer.
Multiple myeloma is a cancer of the plasma in the bone marrow. Plasma cells can be found in the bone marrow. They are an important part of your immune system. Your immune system comprises multiple types of cells that help your body defend against infection and diseases.
Myeloma may not always cause symptoms. However, certain signs of myeloma include:
Low blood counts
These low blood counts can cause anemia, a shortage of red blood cells. This can cause you to feel weak or fatigued.
Low blood counts can also cause the level of platelets in your blood to become low, leading to increased bruising and bleeding. Low blood counts can also cause leukopenia, a shortage of white blood cells. This can make it difficult for your body to prevent infection.
Myeloma can interfere with the cells that help keep bones strong, preventing old bones from being replaced. The breakdown causes bones to become weak and easy to break.
This can cause:
- bone pain
- bone weakness
- bone fractures
High levels of calcium
Myeloma can cause high levels of calcium in your blood. This can lead to:
- extreme thirst
- frequent urination
- kidney problems or kidney failure
- abdominal pain
- loss of appetite
Nervous system symptoms
Myeloma can weaken the spine bones, causing bones to collapse and press on the spinal nerves. The compression can cause:
- severe and sudden back pain
- numbness, especially in the legs
- muscle weakness, often in the legs
If you experience any of these symptoms, contact your doctor or seek medical care right away.
Large amounts of myeloma protein can cause blood to thicken, called hyperviscosity. Symptoms include:
- stroke-like symptoms, such as slurred speech and weakness on one side of your body
Read more about multiple myeloma.
Leukemia composes many types of cancers of blood-forming cells. A common type of leukemia that begins in the bone marrow is acute lymphocytic leukemia or acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).
Leukemia cells typically enter the blood quickly. Acute types of leukemia, like ALL, also generally progress rapidly.
Symptoms of ALL include:
- weakness or fatigue
- night sweats or fever
- bleeding or bruising easily
- shortness of breath
- unexpected weight loss
- joint or bone pain
- swollen lymph nodes, particularly in the neck, armpit, or groin
- discomfort or swelling in the abdomen
- frequent infections
Read more about acute lymphocytic leukemia.
Lymphoma describes cancers that begin in the lymph system. The lymph system includes tissues and organs that make white blood cells, helping prevent infections.
The two main types of lymphoma differ in the cells involved and in the following ways:
- Hodgkin lymphoma: This lymphoma typically spreads from one group of lymph nodes to the next. Hodgkin lymphoma also typically forms in the upper half of your body.
- Non-Hodgkin lymphoma: This lymphoma generally spreads through the lymphatic system. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma can appear anywhere in the body.
Because both diseases spread differently and respond differently to treatment, discovering the type you are experiencing is important.
Symptoms of both Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma include:
- swollen lymph nodes
- night sweats
- feeling tired
- unexpected weight loss
The exact causes of bone marrow cancer are unknown.
Risk factors for multiple myeloma include:
- Age: Myeloma is more common in people older than 45 years.
- Gender: People assigned male at birth are more likely to develop myeloma than people assigned female at birth.
- Environmental factors: Exposure to X-rays and other ionizing radiation may increase your risk of developing myeloma.
Risk factors for ALL include:
- radiation exposure
- chemical exposure, such as chemotherapy or benzene
- viral infections, such as human T-cell lymphoma/leukemia virus 1 (HTLV-1) and Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)
- genetic syndromes, such as down syndrome, Fanconi anemia, and bloom syndrome
- age, people over 50 years are more likely to develop ALL
Risk factors for lymphoma include:
- having HIV
- viruses like HTLV or EBV
- ionizing radiation exposure
- family history
- ingredients in herbicides or pesticides
Diagnosis for bone marrow cancer typically begins with a doctor’s physical exam. The doctor will typically order tests based on your symptoms and findings.
Tests to diagnose bone marrow cancer may include:
The exact tests are based on the type of bone marrow cancer you may be experiencing.
Treatment for bone marrow cancer depends on the type of cancer. However, common treatment options include:
- radiation therapy
- stem cell transplant
The outlook for bone marrow cancer depends on the following:
- overall health
- response to treatment
- type of cancer
- how far cancer has spread
The 5-year relative survival rates for bone marrow cancer are:
A relative survival rate shows how long someone with a specific condition may live after their diagnosis compared with someone without the condition.
For example, a 5-year relative survival rate of 70% means that 70 out of 100 people diagnosed with a condition are still living at least 5 years from the time of diagnosis.
Remember that figures are estimates, and everyone is different. Talk with your doctor about your condition.
The types of bone marrow cancer include myeloma, acute lymphocytic leukemia, and lymphoma.
Symptoms depend on the type of cancer but can include swollen lymph nodes, fatigue, and unexpected weight loss. Other symptoms may include bone pain, weakness, and fractures.
Treatment for bone marrow cancer includes chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and stem-cell transplant.
If you are experiencing symptoms that cause you concern, speak with a doctor.