Is Multiple Myeloma?
- Multiple myeloma is a rare type of cancer that affects plasma cells. Plasma cells are a type of white blood cell in the bone marrow. They help fight infections by creating proteins that recognize and attack germs.
- When it’s left untreated, multiple myeloma can lead to an increased risk of bone fractures, infections, and other serious problems.
- There’s no cure for multiple myeloma, but treatments can help ease symptoms and slow its progression.
Cells make up every part of the human body. Healthy cells
multiply and grow when the body needs them and die when they get damaged or
when the body no longer needs them. Cancer occurs when abnormal cells start to
grow, even when the body doesn’t need them.
Multiple myeloma is a type of cancer that affects plasma cells.
Plasma cells are a type of white blood cell found in the bone marrow. This is
the soft tissue inside most of your bones that produces blood cells. In the
bone marrow, plasma cells make antibodies, which are proteins that help your
body fight off diseases and infections.
Multiple myeloma occurs when an abnormal plasma cell develops in
the bone marrow and reproduces itself very quickly. The rapid reproduction of
malignant myeloma cells eventually outweighs the production of healthy cells in
the bone marrow. As a result, the cancerous cells begin to accumulate in the bone
marrow, crowding out the healthy white blood cells and red blood cells. Like
healthy blood cells, cancerous cells try to make antibodies. However, they can
only produce abnormal antibodies called monoclonal proteins, or M proteins. When
these harmful antibodies collect in the body, they can cause kidney damage and
other serious problems.
According to Stanford
University, multiple myeloma is rare, accounting for only 1 percent of all
cancer cases in the United States. About four to five out of 100,000 people are
diagnosed with this type of cancer each year.
There are two main types of multiple myeloma that are categorized
by their effect on the body.
An indolent myeloma causes
no noticeable symptoms. It usually develops slowly and doesn’t cause bone
tumors. Only small increases in M protein and M plasma cells are seen.
A solitary plasmacytoma
causes a tumor to form, typically in bone. It usually responds well to
treatment but needs close monitoring.
Are the Symptoms of Multiple Myeloma?
The symptoms of multiple myeloma vary depending on the person.
Initially, symptoms may not be noticeable. However, as the disease progresses,
most people will experience at least one of four major types of symptoms. These
symptoms are generally referred to by the acronym CRAB, which stands for:
- bone damage
High levels of calcium in
the blood come from affected bones leaking calcium. Too much
calcium can cause:
- extreme thirst
- upset stomach
- a loss of appetite
Confusion and constipation are also common symptoms of increased
Kidney failure can
be caused by high levels of M protein in the body.
Anemia is a condition in
which the blood doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen to
the rest of the body. This happens when cancerous cells outnumber red
cells in the bone marrow. Anemia often causes fatigue, dizziness, and
Bone injuries and
fractures occur when cancerous cells invade the bone and bone
marrow. These lesions appear as holes on X-ray images. They often cause bone
pain, especially in the:
Additional symptoms of multiple myeloma may include:
- weakness or numbness, especially in the legs
- unintentional weight loss
- mental confusion
- problems with urination
- repeated infections
- vision loss or vision problems
Causes Multiple Myeloma?
The exact cause of multiple myeloma is unknown. However, it
starts with one abnormal plasma cell that rapidly multiplies in the bone marrow
many more times than it should. The resulting cancerous myeloma cells don’t
have a normal life cycle. Instead of multiplying and then eventually dying,
they continue dividing indefinitely. This can overwhelm the body and impair the
production of healthy cells.
Are the Risk Factors for Multiple Myeloma?
People have a higher risk of developing multiple myeloma if they’re:
- over age 50
- overweight or obese
- exposed to radiation
- employed in the petroleum industry
Another risk factor for multiple myeloma is a history of
monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS). This is a condition
that causes plasma cells to produce M proteins. It usually doesn’t cause any problems.
However, MGUS can sometimes develop into multiple myeloma over time.
Is Multiple Myeloma Diagnosed?
Doctors often detect multiple myeloma before any symptoms are
present. Routine physical exams, blood tests, and urine tests can uncover
evidence of this cancer. More tests will be needed if your doctor finds signs
of myeloma when you don’t have symptoms. Using the following tests, your doctor
can monitor the progression of the disease and determine whether you need
Blood and Urine Tests
Blood and urine tests are used to check for M proteins. These
proteins may be caused by multiple myeloma or other conditions. Cancerous cells
also make a protein called beta-2 microglobulin, which can be found in the
blood. Blood tests can also be used to assess:
- the percentage of plasma cells in the bone
- kidney function
- blood cell counts
- calcium levels
- uric acid levels
X-rays, MRI scans, or CT scans can be used to determine whether
bones have been damaged by multiple myeloma.
During a biopsy, your doctor removes a small sample of bone
marrow with a long needle. Once a sample is obtained, it can be checked for cancerous
cells in a laboratory. Various tests can determine the types of abnormalities in
the cells and how quickly the cells are multiplying.
These types of tests are used to determine whether you have
multiple myeloma or another condition. If multiple myeloma is found, the tests
can show how far it has progressed. This is known as staging the cancer.
Multiple myeloma is staged by looking at blood cell counts,
protein levels in blood and urine, and calcium levels in the blood. The results
of other diagnostic tests may also be used. There are two ways to stage
multiple myeloma. The Durie-Salmon system is based on the levels of M protein,
calcium, and red blood cells as well as the degree of bone damage. The International
Staging System is based on the levels of blood plasma and beta-2 microglobulin.
Both systems divide the condition into three stages, with the
third stage being the most severe. Staging helps your doctor determine your
outlook and treatment options.
Is Multiple Myeloma Treated?
There’s no cure for multiple myeloma. However, there are
treatments that can help ease the pain, reduce complications, and slow the
progression of the disease. Treatments are only used if the disease is getting
worse. Your doctor is unlikely to suggest treatment if you aren’t experiencing
any symptoms. Instead, your doctor will closely monitor your condition for
signs that the disease is progressing. This often involves regular blood and
If you need treatment, common options include the following:
Targeted therapy medications block a chemical in myeloma cells
that destroys proteins, causing the cancer cells to die. The drugs that may be
used during targeted therapy include bortezomib (Velcade) and carfilzomib
(Kyprolis). Both are administered intravenously, or through a vein in your arm.
Biological therapy medications use your body’s immune system to attack
myeloma cells. The pill form of thalidomide
(Revlimid), or pomalidomide
(Pomalyst) is usually used to boost the immune system. Lenalidomide is similar
to thalidomide, but it has fewer side effects. It also appears to be more
Chemotherapy is an aggressive form of drug therapy that helps
kill fast-growing cells, including myeloma cells. Chemotherapy drugs are often
given in high doses, especially before a stem cell transplant. The medications
may be given intravenously or taken in pill form.
Corticosteroids, such as prednisone and dexamethasone, are often
used to treat myeloma. They can balance the immune system by reducing
inflammation in the body, so they’re often effective in destroying myeloma
cells. They can be taken in pill form or given intravenously.
Radiation therapy uses strong beams of energy to damage myeloma
cells and stop their growth. This type of treatment is sometimes used to kill
myeloma cells quickly in a certain area of the body. For example, it may be
done when a cluster of abnormal plasma cells form a tumor called a plasmacytoma
that causes pain or destroys bone.
Stem Cell Transplants
Stem cell transplants involve replacing diseased bone marrow with
healthy bone marrow from a donor. Before the procedure, blood-forming stem
cells are collected from your blood. The multiple myeloma is then treated with
radiation therapy or high doses of chemotherapy. Once the diseased tissue can
be destroyed, the stem cells can be infused into your body, where they move
into the bones and start rebuilding bone marrow.
Alternative medicine has become a popular way to cope with the
symptoms of multiple myeloma and the side effects of treatment for the
condition. While they can’t treat multiple myeloma, you may want to talk to
your doctor about:
- relaxation methods
You should discuss any alternative therapies with your doctor
before trying them to ensure they’re safe for your health.
Are the Complications Associated with Multiple Myeloma?
Multiple myeloma can cause many complications, but they’re usually
- Back pain can
be treated with medications or a back brace.
complications are treated with dialysis or a kidney transplant.
- Infections can
be treated with antibiotics.
loss can be slowed or prevented with drug therapy.
- Anemia can
be treated with erythropoietin. This medication stimulates the body to produce
more red blood cells.
Is the Outlook for People with Multiple Myeloma?
People who’ve recently been diagnosed with multiple myeloma may
not experience symptoms for several years. Once the disease has progressed and
symptoms do occur, most people respond well to treatment. However, serious
complications can develop even after years of successful treatment.
An exact timetable for the disease is difficult to pinpoint, but according
to the American
Cancer Society, average survival rates for the three stages of multiple
- Stage 1: 62 months, which is approximately five
- Stage 2: 44 months, which is approximately three
to four years
- Stage 3: 29 months, which is approximately two
to three years
It’s important to keep in mind that these are general estimates
based on previous outcomes of numerous people who’ve had multiple myeloma. Your
specific outlook depends on various factors, including your age, overall
health, and how well your cancer responds to treatment. Speak with your doctor
about your particular situation to learn more about your outlook.
with Multiple Myeloma
If you’ve been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, you might find it
helpful to do one or more of the following:
Learn more about multiple myeloma.
Educate yourself by learning about multiple myeloma so you can
make informed decisions about your treatment. Talk to your doctor about your
treatment options and the side effects of treatment. The National Cancer Institute and International Myeloma Foundation can also
provide you with more information about multiple myeloma.
Establish a support system.
Establish a support system by gathering a group of friends and
family members that can lend a helping hand or emotional support when you need
it. Support groups can also be helpful and may be found online. If you prefer
to meet with a support group in person, visit the American
Cancer Society website to find groups in your area.
Set reasonable goals.
Stay motivated by setting reasonable goals that give you a sense
of control over your condition. Don’t set goals that are too out of reach
because that exhaust and frustrate you. For example, you may not be able to
work a full 40 hours per week, but you may still be able to work part time.
Focus on your overall health.
Focus on your overall health by making sure you eat healthful
foods and get enough sleep. It can also be beneficial to do low-intensity exercises,
such as walking or yoga, a couple of times per week. Keeping your body and mind
as healthy as possible can help you better cope with the stress and fatigue you
may experience with cancer. To make sure you get enough time to rest and
recover, don’t overload your schedule.