Myeloma: little known cancer that demands much quicker diagnosis

22 April 2022

Myeloma, also known as multiple myeloma, is probably one of less well-known forms of blood cancer affecting the bone marrow (the spongy tissue in the centre of some of your bones). It accounts for only 2% of all cancers and mainly afflicts those over the age of 65, however it has been diagnosed in people much younger.

Andrea Rusbridge, medical negligence specialist solicitor and partner in Shoosmiths Northampton office, commented:

“The condition is diagnosed very easily with a blood test and there is treatment available which can control the deterioration, although sadly at present there is no cure. Half the battle however is raising awareness of this form of cancer among medical professionals so that they can reach a correct diagnosis promptly, which would avoid many of the problems suffered by people afflicted by this uncommon but debilitating cancer.”

Unlike many cancers, myeloma does not exist as a lump or tumour, and it is frequently mistaken for other conditions. Most of the medical problems related to myeloma are caused by the build-up of abnormal plasma cells in the bone marrow and the presence of a substance called paraprotein. Myeloma can spread to multiple areas of the body (which is why it is sometimes referred to as multiple myeloma) and will cause problems in places where bone marrow is normally active in an adult, such as the spine, skull and ribs as well as the long bones of the arms and legs. 

The effect of the cancer is to weaken bones and suppress the immune system and there can be a range of symptoms. Because of this, and the fact that myeloma is relatively uncommon, there is often a delay in diagnosis which can have catastrophic consequences.

A report by the charity Myeloma UK on the impact of delayed diagnosis on quality of life noted that 50% of patients had a severely delayed diagnosis. The average waiting time from first symptoms becoming apparent to diagnosis was 163 days, one of the longest of any cancer. 25% of myeloma patients waited more than a year before getting the right diagnosis while 72% reported that their myeloma had a high or moderate impact on their quality of life. 39% of patients reported either spinal fracture, spinal cord compression or curved spine (kyphosis) as a result of the delay in their diagnosis and treatment.

Andrea represented a client with multiple myeloma who suffered just such a delay in diagnosis. Her client developed back pain and felt/heard a crack when moving normally. He saw his GP who prescribed simple pain relief medication., however the symptoms got worse, and his mobility became severely impaired. After some time, Andrea’s client was assessed for operative treatment.

Eventually, as part of the pre operation process, a blood test was taken and a diagnosis of multiple myeloma made, but by this time our client had suffered irreparable damage and, whilst he did receive treatment for the damage to his spine, he was in a much worse condition than he should have been had he been diagnosed earlier.

Myeloma UK are trying to encourage earlier diagnosis and in 2020 the charity developed and launched a GP Diagnostic Tool to help deliver more timely diagnoses for myeloma patients. The tool acts as a guide through the diagnostic process using a traffic light system which is routine in primary health care to give a clear indication of how urgently to refer patients based on initial tests. The ultimate aim is to ensure clear communication between primary care and test laboratories so that GPs have a standardised way of interpreting results and consistency in their decision-making.

Andrea concludes:

“Myeloma UK are to be praised for their efforts here. The interpretation of specialist myeloma laboratory tests can be challenging for GPs. One of the biggest difficulties in myeloma diagnosis is that many of the symptoms are non-specific and can seem unconnected, so anything that improves early diagnosis before late-stage complications arise will improve survival and the overall quality of life for patients.”



This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024

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