Symptoms to Diagnosis

Severe hypercalcemia in a 54-year-old woman

Author and Disclosure Information




The probability that malignancy is causing the hypercalcemia increases with calcium levels greater than 13 mg/dL. Epidemiologically, in hospitalized patients with hypercalcemia, the source tends to be malignancy.4 Typically, patients who develop hypercalcemia from malignancy have a worse prognosis.5

Solid tumors and leukemias can cause hypercalcemia. The mechanisms include humoral factors secreted by the malignancy, local osteolysis due to tumor invasion of bone, and excessive absorption of calcium due to excess vitamin D produced by malignancies.5 The cancers that most frequently cause an increase in calcium resorption are lung cancer, renal cancer, breast cancer, and multiple myeloma.1

Solid tumors with no bone metastasis and non-Hodgkin lymphoma that release PTH-related protein (PTHrP) cause humoral hypercalcemia in malignancy. The patient is typically in an advanced stage of disease. PTHrP increases serum calcium levels by decreasing the kidney’s ability to excrete calcium and by increasing bone turnover. It has no effect on intestinal absorption because of its inability to stimulate activated vitamin D3. Thus, the increase in systemic calcium comes directly from breakdown of bone and inability to excrete the excess.

PTHrP has a unique role in breast cancer: it is released locally in areas where cancer cells have metastasized to bone, but it does not cause a systemic effect. Bone resorption occurs in areas of metastasis and results from an increase in expression of RANKL and RANK in osteoclasts in response to the effects of PTHrP, leading to an increase in the production of osteoclastic cells.1

Tamoxifen, an endocrine therapy often used in breast cancer, also causes a release of bone-reabsorbing factors from tumor cells, which can partially contribute to hypercal­cemia.5

Myeloma cells secrete RANKL, which stimulates osteoclastic activity, and they also release interleukin 6 (IL-6) and activating macrophage inflammatory protein alpha. Serum testing usually shows low or normal intact PTH, PTHrP, and 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D.1

Patients with multiple myeloma have a worse prognosis if they have a high red blood cell distribution width, a condition shown to correlate with malnutrition, leading to deficiencies in vitamin B12 and to poor response to treatment.6 Up to 14% of patients with multiple myeloma have vitamin B12 deficiency.7

Our patient’s recent weight loss and severe hypercalcemia raise suspicion of malignancy. Further, her obesity makes proper routine breast examination difficult and thus increases the chance of undiagnosed breast cancer.8 Her decrease in renal function and her anemia complicated by hypercalcemia also raise suspicion of multiple myeloma.

Hypercalcemia due to drug therapy

Thiazide diuretics, lithium, teriparatide, and vitamin A in excessive amounts can raise the serum calcium concentration.5 Our patient was taking a thiazide for hypertension, but her extremely high calcium level places drug-induced hypercalcemia as the sole cause lower on the differential list.

Familial hypercalcemic hypocalciuria

Familial hypercalcemic hypocalciuria is a rare autosomal-dominant cause of hypercalcemia in which the ability of the body (and especially the kidneys) to sense levels of calcium is impaired, leading to a decrease in excretion of calcium in the urine.3 Very high calcium levels are rare in hypercalcemic hypocalciuria.3 In our patient with a corrected calcium concentration of nearly 19 mg/dL, familial hypercalcemic hypocalciuria is very unlikely to be the cause of the hypercalcemia.


As hypercalcemia has been confirmed, the intact PTH level should be checked to determine whether the patient’s condition is PTH-mediated. If the PTH level is in the upper range of normal or is minimally elevated, primary hyperparathyroidism is likely. Elevated PTH confirms primary hyperparathyroidism. A low-normal or low intact PTH confirms a non-PTH-mediated process, and once this is confirmed, PTHrP levels should be checked. An elevated PTHrP suggests humoral hypercalcemia of malignancy. Serum protein electrophoresis, urine protein electrophoresis, and a serum light chain assay should be performed to rule out multiple myeloma.

Vitamin D toxicity is associated with high concentrations of 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D and 25-hydroxyvitamin D metabolites. These levels should be checked in this patient.

Other disorders that cause hypercalcemia are vitamin A toxicity and hyperthyroidism, so vitamin A and thyroid-stimulating hormone levels should also be checked.5


After further questioning, the patient said that she had had lower back pain about 1 to 2 weeks before coming to the emergency room; her primary care doctor had said the pain was likely from muscle strain. The pain had almost resolved but was still present.

The results of further laboratory testing were as follows:

  • Serum PTH 11 pg/mL (15–65)
  • PTHrP 3.4 pmol/L (< 2.0)
  • Protein electrophoresis showed a monoclonal (M) spike of 0.2 g/dL (0)
  • Activated vitamin D < 5 ng/mL (19.9–79.3)
  • Vitamin A 7.2 mg/dL (33.1–100)
  • Vitamin B12 194 pg/mL (239–931)
  • Thyroid-stimulating hormone 1.21 mIU/ L (0.47–4.68
  • Free thyroxine 1.27 ng/dL (0.78–2.19)
  • Iron 103 µg/dL (37–170)
  • Total iron-binding capacity 335 µg/dL (265–497)
  • Transferrin 248 mg/dL (206–381)
  • Ferritin 66 ng/mL (11.1–264)
  • Urine protein (random) 100 mg/dL (0–20)
  • Urine microalbumin (random) 5.9 mg/dL (0–1.6)
  • Urine creatinine clearance 88.5 mL/min (88–128)
  • Urine albumin-creatinine ratio 66.66 mg/g (< 30).

Next Article:

Low-dose steroids for acute exacerbations of COPD in a non-ICU setting: Worth consideration

Related Articles