What is multiple myeloma?


Know the basics

What is multiple myeloma?

Multiple myeloma is a type of cancer formed by malignant plasma cells. Plasma cells produce antibodies (also called immunoglobulins) that help the body attack and kill germs. Normal plasma cells are found in the bone marrow and are an important part of the immune system. Bone marrow is the soft tissue inside some hollow bones. In addition to plasma cells, bone marrow also has cells that build up other types of blood cells.

Cancer starts when cells in the body begin to grow out of control. Cells in nearly any part of the body can become cancerous, and can spread to other areas of the body.

How common is multiple myeloma?

Multiple myeloma is the second most common blood cancer, and although it is considered incurable, it is very much a treatable disease thanks to recent advancements in cancer research. It can be managed by reducing your risk factors. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Know the symptoms

What are the symptoms of multiple myeloma?

The common symptoms of multiple myeloma are

  • Anemia;
  • Kidney damage;
  • Hypercalcemia (too much calcium);
  • Nerve damage;
  • Skin lesions;
  • Infections;
  • Enlarged tongue (macroglossia);
  • Bone tenderness or pain;
  • Fatigue;
  • Pathologic bone fractures;
  • Back pain;
  • Spinal cord compression;
  • Kidney failure and/or damage;
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss;
  • Constipation;
  • Leg swelling.

Because multiple myeloma affects the immune system, it can cause many symptoms in the body. However, there are 4 main symptoms:

Low blood counts

In multiple myeloma, plasma cells are produced too rapidly. These cancerous cells can outnumber normal blood cells in your bone marrow, leading to low blood counts. This can lead to two consequences: The first consequence is anemia – a shortage of red blood cells. Anemia can in turn lead to paleness and fatigue. The second consequence would be platelets deficiency in the blood (thrombocytopenia). Platelets act as a healing agent in the body, promoting healing of any injury. Lowered platelet count means increased bleeding and bruising. Another consequence is leukopenia – a shortage of normal white blood cells. This makes your body vulnerable to infection.

Bone and calcium problems

Myeloma cells also interfere with your bone cell cycle. Myeloma cells can create a substance that speed up the dissolving of bone cells (osteoclasts) and reduce new bone cells production (osteoblasts).  This weakens the bones and makes they break easily. Fractured bones are a major problem in people with myeloma. Without these signals to make new bone cells, your body calcium level increases, possibly to the extreme (hypercalcemia).


Plasma cells’ role in the body is to fight infection. However, cancerous plasma cells do not protect the body from infections. This allow opportunist infections to enter your body.

Kidney problems

The antibody made by myeloma cells can harm the kidneys. This can lead to kidney damage and even kidney failure.

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body responds differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what suits your situation best.

Know the causes

What causes multiple myeloma?

Multiple myeloma is a type of blood cell cancer. This is when plasma cells in your bone marrow become cancerous and grow out of control. This over-growth creates a tumor in the bone marrow, and possibly upsets other parts of the body. If you develop a single tumor, the disease is called an isolated (or solitary) plasmacytoma. If you develop more than one plasmacytoma, this condition is considered multiple myeloma.

Scientists still do not know exactly what causes most cases of multiple myeloma. They suspect that changes in DNA can make plasma cells become cancerous.

Know the risk factors

What increases my risk for multiple myeloma?

There are many risk factors for multiple myeloma, such as:

  • Age: The risk of multiple myeloma goes up as people age. Most people diagnosed with this cancer are at least 65 years old.
  • Gender: Men are slightly more likely to develop multiple myeloma than women.
  • Race: Multiple myeloma is more than twice as common in African Americans than in white Americans.
  • Radiation: People who are exposed to radiation either at a high level (atomic bomb) or low level for a long time (due to job specialty).
  • Family history: Multiple myeloma seems to run in some families.
  • Obesity: A study by the American Cancer Society has found that being overweight or obese increases a person’s risk of developing myeloma.
  • Having other plasma cell diseases or cancer.

Understand the diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is multiple myeloma diagnosed?

Multiple myeloma is often determined in a routine blood test. If you have the condition, your blood protein is abnormal. You can also notice the stickiness of your blood. Unusual red blood cell formation can increase stickiness of your blood.

The doctor will do a history and physical exam, looking for signs and symptoms of multiple myeloma. If multiple myeloma is suspected, a bone marrow aspiration and/or biopsy might be needed to test for cancer cells. Other tests include blood monoclonal immunoglobulin and radiology tests to determine the extent of bone lesions.

How is multiple myeloma treated?

Treatment for multiple myeloma first start with drugs to balance and support your immune system. Then, a combination of medication, chemotherapy drugs, radiation therapy, stem cell transplants and, in some patients, surgery, will be advised depending on how severe your condition is.

There are many drugs used to treat multiple myeloma. The following drugs are used often in combination with dexamethasone, sometimes orally or by IV, depending on the patient’s individual disease status:

  • Dexamethasone (Decadron) – immune cell modulation;
  • Bortezomib (Velcade) – protease inhibitor;
  • Lenalidomide (Revlimid) – immune cell modulation;
  • Pamidronic acid (Aredia) – inhibits bone reabsorption;
  • Zoledronic acid (Zometa) – inhibits bone reabsorption;
  • Melphalan (Alkeran) – alkylating agent that is toxic to myeloma cells.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage multiple myeloma?

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with multiple myeloma:

  • Know about your condition, how to cope with the symptoms as well as with treatment side effects.
  • Have a support system of your family, friends, colleagues and support group.
  • Spend time to rest. Remember to eat well and get enough exercise. If you find it hard to consume food, try to divide your meals into smaller portion.
  • If you still have to go to work or school during treatment, you should discuss with your employer or school. Set realistic goal for yourself.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

msBahasa Malaysia

Review Date: December 27, 2016 | Last Modified: January 4, 2017

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