Multiple myeloma is a type of blood cancer. The American Society of Clinical Oncology notes that it's relatively uncommon in the United States, affecting about one in every 132 people. Around 30,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. This cancer forms in white blood cells in blood plasma and can affect different organ systems. Learn more about the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of multiple myeloma to improve your awareness of this disease.
What Is Multiple Myeloma?
Multiple Myeloma Explained
Multiple myeloma is a type of blood cancer that forms in white blood cells. These cells are what make up blood plasma. When someone has multiple myeloma, their plasma cells start multiplying abnormally. When you're healthy, these cells produce infection-fighting antibodies, which recognize pathogens in your body and attack them to prevent the germs from spreading. But when you have multiple myeloma, your plasma cells start releasing immunoglobulin, a type of protein, into your blood and bones. That protein gradually builds up in your body, eventually damaging your organs. These abnormal cells also crowd out your healthy blood cells and release chemicals that lead to bone damage.
Multiple Myeloma Symptoms
Like many types of cancer, multiple myeloma can be difficult to recognize based on symptoms alone. Some patients don't have any symptoms. Others have common signs of the disease, like bone problems that include pain, weakness and fractures. Blood count abnormalities are also common symptoms that require testing in a medical setting; you'll need a doctor to perform blood tests to look for low red blood cell, platelet and white blood cell counts.
High calcium levels are another symptom, and these create noticeable effects like thirst, frequent urination, confusion and weakness. Nervous system issues, such as severe back pain, may also result. Leg swelling, weakness and shortness of breath may indicate kidney damage, another symptom of multiple myeloma.
Diagnosis of Multiple Myeloma
Routine bloodwork may provide the first indications that you have multiple myeloma. A blood test may reveal that you're anemic, you have excess calcium in your blood, you have kidney problems or your blood contains high levels of protein with low levels of albumin. To diagnose multiple myeloma, your doctor will likely order more blood tests, specialized urine tests and a bone marrow biopsy.
The prognosis for multiple myeloma depends on the stage of the disease, which is typically expressed by a number: stage I, stage II or stage III. Stage I means that the cancer isn't growing quickly, while stage III means the cancer is growing aggressively and has the potential to damage various organ systems in your body. Other factors that can affect the prognosis include your age, kidney health and overall health.
Multiple Myeloma Causes
Researchers aren't sure yet what causes multiple myeloma. They're starting to understand that it may have something to do with the way our genes work. Cancers often happen when cells mutate and start growing incorrectly. Sometimes these mutations can suppress the genes that typically prevent cancer cells from growing.
Multiple myeloma starts when one mutated or damaged plasma cell appears and starts producing copies of itself. These cancerous cells don't die as quickly as healthy, normal cells do. Instead, they start multiplying quickly — much faster than normal cells do. They begin building up in your bone marrow and can keep your body from producing as many healthy cells as it normally would. When your body can't produce as many red and white blood cells as it needs, it becomes harder for your body to fight off infections. The built-up cancerous plasma cells can damage and weaken your bones, raising your risk of fractures and breaks.
There are also several risk factors that can increase your chances of developing multiple myeloma. Age is one; people older than 65 are more likely to develop this type of cancer. If you have a family member who has or has had multiple myeloma, you're more likely to get it. In addition, if you already have a plasma cell disease such as solitary plasmacytoma, your risk of developing multiple myeloma is elevated. Race and biological sex also play roles; African-Americans and men are more likely to get this type of cancer than people of other races and women are.
Treatment for Multiple Myeloma
If you don't have any symptoms, your doctor may take a wait-and-see approach. This means the doctor will monitor your symptoms and do routine bloodwork and urine tests to determine how the multiple myeloma is progressing. If your doctor determines that you're high risk, they may recommend trying new treatments in a clinical trial. You'll work closely with your healthcare team to create the right treatment plan for your needs, which may include chemotherapy, immunotherapy or medications like Interferon, which slows the growth of the cancer cells.
Standard treatment for multiple myeloma includes targeted therapy, which involves using certain drugs that stop the abnormal cells from creating the harmful proteins. These drugs can also kill the cancer cells. Biological therapy and chemotherapy are also common, and they both involve taking drugs that help your body's immune system eliminate the cancerous cells or that kill the cancer cells outright.
The prognosis for multiple myeloma continues improving. According to the American Cancer Society, the number of people living five years or longer after diagnosis has been increasing since the year 2000. On average, patients live at least 43 to 83 months after diagnosis, depending on the stage of the disease and their overall health.