Multiple myeloma, also called myeloma, is a rare cancer of the blood that affects tens of thousands of people in the United States. Some people with multiple myeloma require treatment to slow the growth and spread of the cancer cells.
There is currently no known cure for cancer. However, early diagnosis and the right treatment can help patients live longer. By educating yourself about this rare disease, you can take the necessary steps to ensure you or your loved one receives the care they need.
Multiple myeloma is a cancer of the plasma cells that are found mainly inside of the bone marrow (the soft tissue in the center of most of your bones). The main function of the bone marrow is to make red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Plasma cells are white blood cells that make antibodies, also called immunoglobulins, the immune system needs to protect you from germs that cause infection. This cancer is called multiple myeloma because the plasma cells begin to make abnormal cells that cause multiple tumors to grow in different locations of the body.
Scientists do not know what is the exact cause of most cases of multiple myeloma. But they do have some understanding of how DNA changes can turn plasma cells into cancerous cells. DNA is the chemical that instructs cells on what to do and how to protect the body. Nevertheless, cancer is believed to start when normal plasma cells become cancerous and grow out of control. The cells are called myeloma cells at this point.
The overgrowth of myeloma cells interferes with healthy cells in the bone marrow tasked with making red blood cells, platelets, and other white blood cells. The plasma cells also stop producing the antibodies needed to fight infection. Instead, they produce abnormal proteins called monoclonal proteins, or M proteins. These are abnormal cells the body cannot use and will build up and eventually lead to complications such as kidney and bone damage.
Myeloma cells also show abnormalities in their chromosomes (found in DNA) such as extra or missing (deleted) chromosomes. Myeloma appears to be more aggressive and resistant to treatment in patients with deleted parts of chromosome number 17.
There are two main subtypes of multiple myeloma:
There are other plasma cell disorders involving abnormal plasma cells but fall short of the criteria to be called active multiple myeloma. They include the following more common plasma cell disorders which may turn into multiple myeloma later on:
Although you may not need treatment for any of these pre-malignant disorders, your doctor may monitor you closely to see if multiple myeloma starts developing later.
Some individuals are more at risk of developing multiple myeloma based on gender, age, race, and exposure to radiation.
Multiple myeloma does not always cause symptoms and may continue to fly under the radar as it progresses. The disease is often discovered when the person does a blood or urine test for another condition and the results show a higher than normal level of proteins in the samples. When symptoms do show they may vary from person to person The following are common signs and symptoms and may occur when the cancer is in its advanced stage:
These symptoms can be a sign of other medical conditions. Talk to your doctor if your symptoms persist or grow worse.
Types of complications include:
Your doctor may order one or more of the following tests or procedures if he or she suspects multiple myeloma based on your signs and symptoms. Routine diagnostic tests and procedures include:
If you're diagnosed with multiple myeloma, your doctor will use the details of the various diagnostic tests to determine the stage of the disease. The cancer is grouped into stage I, stage II, or stage III. Stage I is the least aggressive stage. Understanding the disease stage and risks helps your doctor provide a prognosis and recommend suitable treatment options.
The need for urgent treatment will depend on the stage of the disease. You may not need treatment if you have no symptoms, the disease is in its early stage, or it is slow-growing. Your doctor will monitor you and perform regular tests to check for signs the disease is progressing. The following standard treatments (or combination treatments) can begin if signs and symptoms develop or the disease starts to progress: