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What is Waldenstrom's Macroglobulinemia?

By Stephany Seipel
Updated May 17, 2024
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Waldenstrom's macroglobulinemia, or lymphoplasmacytic lymphoma, is a rare cancer that affects a kind of white blood cell called B lymphocytes or B cells. Doctors treat the cancer with chemotherapy, blood transfusions and blood purification, among other options. The prognosis for long-term survival varies by patient.

Lymphoplasmacytic cells are immature B cells that are in the process of becoming plasma cells. They generate a protein called monoclonal immunoglobulin antibody (IgM). Lymphoplasmacytic lymphoma causes overproduction of these antibody-producing cells. The excessive amounts of IgM thicken the blood so that it does not flow easily through the veins and vessels.

Many people who have Waldenstrom's macroglobulinemia do not experience symptoms. Some patients experience weight loss, blurred vision or partial loss of sight, a lack of energy, nose bleeds, bleeding from the gums and dizziness. Other symptoms include unexplained rashes or bruises, discolored or bluish skin and swollen glands.

The disease mainly affects people who are more than 65 years old, but younger people occasionally are affected by it. It is more prevalent in men than in women and is seen more often in people who are of Caucasian ancestry than members of other races. People who have chronic hepatitis C have twice as much risk of developing Waldenstrom's macroglobulinemia as people who do not have the disease. Individuals who are related to people with Waldenstrom's macroglobulinemia also are at a greater risk of being affected.

Doctors diagnose the disease by conducting a number of tests. They perform bloodwork and bone marrow biopsies to find how high the IgM levels are, and they look for certain proteins that suggest the presence of Waldenstrom's macroglobulinemia. Other tests, such as computed tomography (CT), look at the liver, lymph nodes and other areas of the body.

There was no cure for this rare form of cancer as of 2011. Doctors do not usually recommend treatment for patients who do not show symptoms. They treat Waldenstrom's macroglobulinemia with chemotherapy and address its secondary symptoms with steroids and other medications, as well as using blood transfusions and a blood purification method called plasmapheresis. Plasmapheresis removes the blood from the body, separates the defective plasma from the rest of the blood and replaces it with a substitute plasma before returning it to the body. Some doctors also remove the spleen to minimize the body's ability to produce IgM antibodies.

The prognosis for survival varies depending on the patient. Some patients develop the symptoms slowly over a long period of time, and others experience a rapid onset of symptoms. Most patients survive for about six years, but some people live with the disease for 10 years or longer.

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