The faster you get help, the better
Fatigue, back pain, and a tendency to catch every infection that goes around at work are quite common symptoms, seen by GPs daily. They can be triggered by a whole range of conditions, and finding the cause is often difficult, time-consuming and, let’s face it, expensive, whether you’re paying the taxi-fare to your clinic or chowing through the GP visits covered by your medical scheme.
But it’s worth seeking answers. If your instinct tells you there’s something wrong, don’t feel embarrassed about consulting your doctor again with the same complaints. Because you really don’t want to find yourself dealing with a disease like Multiple Myeloma at an advanced stage.
Multiple Myeloma is a cancer in the bone marrow, where blood cells are produced, which causes a build-up of plasma cells – cells a healthy body needs, but which in excess cause problems.
It’s an incurable – but treatable – cancer. And the quicker it’s diagnosed, the better for the patient, explains Dr Lucille Singh, a clinical haematologist in private practice in Johannesburg.
Unfortunately, unlike many other cancers, signs of its presence are not that easy for a doctor to pick up. “It’s not like breast cancer where you feel a lump in one of your breasts,” says Dr Singh. “It’s very rare that it will cause a solid mass, it’s in the bone marrow, and from there can enter the bloodstream.”
Often the earliest identifiable warning sign will be fatigue that results from anaemia, a tiredness that persists and slowly gets worse. Your GP will test for anaemia in patients complaining of exhaustion; once common causes such as deficiencies of iron or Vitamin B12, or bleeding (such as from piles), have been excluded, referral to a haematologist for further tests is indicated.
The impact on the immune system leaves people susceptible to recurrent infections – pneumonia, urinary tract infections, sinusitis.
Other symptoms that raise red flags include “persistent bone pain – and that’s in the bone itself, not like arthritis where it’s in the joints, but deep-seated bone pain,” says Dr Singh. It commonly affects the back, ribs or hips. “New-onset back-pain in somebody with no previous history of pain or injury, pain that affects quality of life or mobility, should be investigated.” This doesn’t, initially, mean very expensive tests: a simple X-ray can pick up signs of multiple myeloma damage to the bones, what Dr Singh refers to as a ‘moth-eaten’ appearance.
That damage causes a brittleness which can be another red flag: bone fractures after very minor trauma. “We’ve had patients who’ve fractured a rib during an aggressive coughing fit, or a forearm that’s fractured when picking up a heavy weight.”
Another possible symptom is kidney problems. “Kidney failure is usually linked to diabetes or hypertension in South Africa,” says Dr Singh. “Unexplained kidney failure must be investigated further.”
Early diagnosis is critical, says Dr Singh, because early treatment increases your chance of living longer, and crucially, having good quality of life. “Compromise to the spinal cord can cause paralysis; kidney failure means you’ll be on dialysis for life. These are the kind of situations we want to avoid. Early diagnosis and treatment can prevent these and give you better quality of life.” She adds, “The malignant plasma cells usually secrete a very specific protein that can be picked up on a simple blood test or on a urine specimen.” These non-invasive screening tests can be done prior to performing more invasive and expensive tests like bone marrow biopsies and MRI or CT scans.
So if your instinct tells you something’s wrong, press for further investigation to get you onto the treatment journey earlier!
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This post and content is sponsored, written and provided by Campaigning for Cancer.