Many people already have other health conditions by the time they are diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Other people develop diseases during or after myeloma treatment. These other conditions may affect your quality of life, limit your myeloma treatment options, and impact your prognosis.
When a second health condition develops as the result of a first disease or its treatments, it is called a complication. Common complications that can occur as a result of multiple myeloma include:
Two or more health conditions that occur at the same time are known as comorbidities. If a person with multiple myeloma has a complication or comorbidity, they may be more sick and have a harder time tolerating myeloma treatments. One study found that more than half of people with multiple myeloma had comorbidities at the time of diagnosis.
Age often plays a role in whether a person has comorbid conditions. The longer someone lives, the higher their chance of having a chronic illness. Multiple myeloma is more likely to affect older adults, who may already have other health conditions. In one study, people who were diagnosed with multiple myeloma were also more likely to have other chronic disorders that also increase with age. For example, 20.4 percent had high blood pressure and 8.4 percent had diabetes.
Many people with multiple myeloma have renal impairment (kidney problems). The kidney filters toxins, wastes, and extra fluid out of the blood. When the kidney is damaged, it may not perform these jobs as well as it should. This condition is called chronic kidney disease. Over time, chronic kidney disease may progress to kidney failure, also known as end-stage renal disease. Kidney failure occurs when the kidneys stop working. At this point, a person will need a kidney transplant or regular dialysis treatments, during which a machine helps filter the blood.
As many as half of people with multiple myeloma develop kidney problems. For about 85 percent of these people, kidney disease is caused by blocked tubules (tiny tubes in the kidneys). During multiple myeloma, cancerous plasma cells produce too many antibody proteins. These proteins enter the bloodstream and can clog up the tubules, causing nearby kidney tissue to become inflamed and damaged.
For the other 15 percent of people with myeloma who have kidney problems, other risk factors are to blame. These include:
Those who are older or have more severe multiple myeloma are more likely to experience kidney problems.
Myeloma treatments, including the chemotherapy drug Velcade (bortezomib) and autologous stem cell transplantation, can reduce the levels of abnormal protein in the blood and help the kidneys work better. When people with multiple myeloma develop kidney failure or need to have dialysis treatments, they are more likely to have a poor prognosis (outlook).
Read more about kidney failure and myeloma.
People with multiple myeloma often have heart conditions before cancer develops. This is especially true for older adults. One study looked at which comorbidities a person already had by the time they were diagnosed with myeloma. Researchers found that some of the most common comorbidities were cardiovascular problems (issues related to the heart or blood vessels). These included:
Other people with myeloma develop heart problems after taking certain cancer therapies. Several types of chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and immunomodulatory drugs can cause heart problems as a side effect. These treatments may lead to conditions such as hypertension, heart attack, and heart failure. People who develop heart problems may need to change their myeloma treatment plan or take additional medications to support their heart health.
People with heart conditions should have regular follow-up visits with their cardiologists while undergoing treatment for myeloma.
Those living with myeloma may also have other existing disorders that prevent the lungs from working as they should. One study found that about 18 percent of people with multiple myeloma were diagnosed with disorders that affect the lungs. These disorders can include asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Another study found that about 45 percent of people with myeloma had problems with lung function, even if they hadn’t been diagnosed with a specific lung disorder. These lung problems often make it harder for people with myeloma to undergo treatment and can lead to poor outcomes.
People with myeloma should work with their health care team to treat any existing lung disorders. This may help people better tolerate their myeloma treatments and have a better quality of life.
People with myeloma may be at risk for developing venous thromboembolism (VTE). VTE is a condition in which a blood clot forms and prevents blood from flowing through a blood vessel. There are two main types of VTE:
DVTs can cause pain, swelling, tightness, skin discoloration, or skin warmth at the site of the blood clot. A lump may also form. These symptoms may also be accompanied by a fast heartbeat. When a person develops a PE, they may experience chest pain, shortness of breath, a rapid heart rate, or feelings of anxiety.
Certain myeloma drugs increase the chance that a person will develop VTE. People taking immunomodulatory drugs such as Thalomid (thalidomide), Pomalyst (pomalidomide), or Revlimid (lenalidomide) in addition to Decadron (dexamethasone) are six times more likely to develop a blood clot. Doctors usually recommend that people using this treatment plan also take an anticoagulant drug — a blood thinner — to help prevent clotting. Regularly exercising, drinking a lot of water, and using compression stockings can also help reduce the risk of DVT and PE.
DVTs and PEs can be serious. They may lead to long-lasting health problems, and they can be fatal. If you notice possible symptoms, get immediate medical care. DVTs and PEs can usually be treated with medication or, in severe cases, surgery.
The liver helps digest food, makes proteins, stores energy, and removes toxins from the blood. Liver failure develops when the liver becomes damaged and can’t carry out these tasks. Liver failure can lead to:
As many as 2 out of 5 people with myeloma have liver problems, including liver failure. This may occur when cancerous plasma cells build up within the liver and cause damage.
Liver failure may be treated with intravenous fluids and blood sugar level monitoring. Medications may also help get rid of toxins that the liver can’t remove. Severe cases of liver failure may require a blood transfusion (receiving blood from a donor), use of a breathing tube, or a liver transplant.
People who live with cancer often experience mood disorders such as depression or anxiety. One study found that about 22 percent of people with myeloma had symptoms of depression and that nearly 36 percent had symptoms of anxiety. Those with depression or anxiety have a higher risk of experiencing additional myeloma symptoms and needing more hospital visits.
Many different factors can contribute to depression or anxiety in people with cancer. Those who receive a myeloma diagnosis may experience upsetting body changes, feel stressed about paying for treatment, have to change their plans for the future, and have to deal with end-of-life planning. These factors can all lead to mental health struggles.
While everyone feels sad or upset after a cancer diagnosis, depression goes beyond normal feelings of sadness. Symptoms of depression may look like:
Those with multiple myeloma may also struggle with anxiety. This can lead to constant feelings of worry, stress, or restlessness. People with anxiety may also have problems with brain fog and with regulating their emotions. They may be unusually irritable or angry.
Some symptoms of depression and anxiety, such as eating changes, sleeping changes, and brain fog, can also occur as a result of cancer treatments like chemotherapy. Talk to your doctor if you notice mental health changes. Your doctor may recommend taking medication or going to therapy or counseling. Participating in support groups may also boost mental health. Following a steady routine, eating a balanced diet, and getting regular physical activity may also help when dealing with anxiety and depression.
Multiple myeloma therapies can cause several other complications and side effects, including:
Palliative care aims to treat or prevent these side effects and relieve myeloma symptoms. It might include additional medications, nutritional support, mental health care, or financial or social support. A person can use palliative care at any stage of their treatment journey.
To assess the impact of a person’s comorbidities, doctors have developed a tool called the revised Myeloma Comorbidity Index (R-MCI). This tool takes into account a person’s age, overall health, and how well their lungs and kidneys work. Using the R-MCI, doctors can assign a score that classifies people into low-, intermediate-, or high-risk groups. This information helps doctors estimate prognosis and develop a treatment plan.
People with multiple comorbidities and a higher R-MCI score usually have a worse outlook. They have a higher chance of early death. Additionally, the more comorbidities a person with myeloma has, the worse their prognosis tends to be.
The R-MCI also helps show which myeloma treatment options may be most helpful. People with comorbidities may not be able to tolerate aggressive therapies. Those with a high R-MCI score may want to choose therapies that come with fewer side effects and that are less likely to cause additional health issues.
If you have other health conditions, work with your oncologist and health care team to make sure all of your health conditions are being treated. Managing comorbidities may help you have a better chance at a good outcome — and a better quality of life.