Find out how myeloma is diagnosed, including what types of tests are involved, and get more information on prognosis and life expectancy.
Being diagnosed with myeloma can be confusing and scary. You might feel overwhelmed, numb, fearful, angry or frustrated. Or it might come as a relief that you finally have an answer to why you’ve felt so unwell for so long. All of these feelings are common and are a natural part of coming to terms with a diagnosis.
Remember, our team of Myeloma Information Specialists are always here to talk. Find out more in our Help and Support section.
How is myeloma diagnosed?
Usually, when myeloma is suspected, you’ll be referred to a haematologist – a hospital doctor who specialises in blood and blood-related disorders. The doctor will arrange for some tests and investigations to find out if you do have myeloma.
There is no single test that can tell you if you have myeloma, so doctors use a combination of test results to confirm a myeloma diagnosis.
There are a variety of blood tests which can diagnose and monitor myeloma. Regular blood tests are performed to measure your paraprotein and/or light chain level. The presence of paraprotein and/or light chains is a strong indicator of myeloma and can be used as a measure of how active it is, although not in every person. Other blood tests will also be done regularly, measuring the levels of different cells in your blood. Some of the most important are:
- Red blood cell count: a low count shows you are anaemic
- White blood cell counts: low counts of some or all of the different white blood cells indicate you are at greater risk of infection
- Platelet count: a low count shows you are at an increased risk of bleeding or bruising more easily than normal
As myeloma can thin or erode the bones, imaging tests can be important, particularly at diagnosis. A skeletal survey is a series of X-rays of the long bones, spine and the skull, to detect evidence of bone damage. More advanced imaging tests include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computerised tomography (CT) scans. These scans can provide more detail and identify areas of bone damage which are not so easily detected by X-ray.
Bone marrow biopsy
This involves taking a small sample (known as a biopsy) of the bone marrow, usually from the back of the hip bone. The sample is examined under a microscope. Normal bone marrow contains less than five per cent normal plasma cells. Myeloma patients may have between 10-90 per cent abnormal plasma cells.
If your diagnosis is confirmed, some of these tests will be repeated regularly to monitor your myeloma over time.
Understanding your test results
Myeloma is a very individual cancer, which can mean that the results from diagnostic tests vary from patient to patient and not all patients produce identical results.
Our Tests and investigations Infoguide provides information about what usual ranges of results are and how these are interpreted by healthcare teams.
Waiting for test results can be a difficult and stressful time and you may feel quite anxious. It may help to talk things through with your healthcare team or with a close friend or family member whilst you are waiting. Don’t forget that you can also call the Myeloma Infoline on 0800 980 3332 for emotional support and practical advice.
If you are, or if someone you know is, being tested for possible myeloma or just been diagnosed with myeloma, we’re here to support you. Find out more about our help services and how we can support your emotional wellbeing. It may help to speak to other people who have been through what you’re going through, so we’ll connect you with a community of people to make sure you don’t feel alone.
Timely diagnosis and the Early Diagnosis Steering Committee
We are working on projects aiming to reduce time to diagnosis and we strive to increase awareness of the early signs and symptoms of myeloma, by educating GPs and other healthcare professionals. Find out about our Early Diagnosis Programme and the Myeloma UK Early Diagnosis Steering Committee.
Prognosis and life expectancy
Although there is currently no cure for myeloma, it is highly treatable in the majority of patients. The prognosis and life expectancy of myeloma patients has greatly improved over recent years, with an increasing number of new and effective treatment options.
According to the most recent statistics available, just over half (50 per cent) of myeloma patients in England will live for at least five years and a third (33 per cent) will live for at least 10 years.
It’s important to bear in mind these are only average figures. It can be difficult, if not impossible, to predict how long someone is likely to live with myeloma. There are many different factors that will affect how long a patient is likely to live. Each patient’s situation is different, and how their myeloma will develop depends on factors such as age and fitness, the nature of their myeloma and the complications it is causing.
There are many new drugs in the pipeline that are being tested for use at different stages of myeloma, and this means that the outlook for myeloma patients is improving all the time. Even the latest statistics do not reflect the possible outcomes for patients living with myeloma now. With the improvements in treatments and life expectancy, myeloma has the potential to become a cancer that is treatable over a very long period. We’re doing every we can to make sure patients get access to better and kinder treatments, and we’re here with support and information to help you live well with myeloma.