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Must-Know Multiple Myeloma Facts

What is multiple myeloma? If you're newly diagnosed, this is what to expect.

Over 34,000 people will receive a multiple myeloma diagnosis in the United States this year—despite being the second most common blood cancer, multiple myeloma is a relatively uncommon form of cancer, affecting 0.8 percent of men and women in their lifetime. Although multiple myeloma is an incurable disease, there are many treatment options available. 

What is multiple myeloma? 
When everything is working correctly, white blood cells known as plasma cells help fight off infection by creating antibodies. With multiple myeloma, abnormal, cancerous versions of these plasma cells multiply within your bone marrow. Instead of creating healthy antibodies, the cancerous cells develop monoclonal protein, or “M protein.” This builds up in the bloodstream and can damage the kidneys and other organs. Plus, myeloma cells produce other substances that speed up the dissolving of bone, making them weaker and more prone to breaks. 

Risk factors and symptoms 
Why do people get multiple myeloma? The answer is unknown. There are, however, some multiple myeloma risk factors that increase your likelihood of getting the disease: 

Age: Multiple myeloma is not typically a young person’s cancer—most people diagnosed are over age 60. 

Gender: Men are a bit more likely than women to get a multiple myeloma diagnosis. 

Race: People of African descent are far more likely to be diagnosed. 

Other plasma cell diseases: A diagnosis of monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS) also increases your likelihood of a multiple myeloma diagnosis. 

You may or may not notice the presence of symptoms. It varies from patient to patient, and symptoms are rarely noticeable in the early stages. Plus, many of the symptoms—such as fatigue and loss of appetite—are hard to identify as significant problems and are also commonplace symptoms of many diseases. 

These are the most common symptoms of multiple myeloma: 

  • Bone pain 
  • Fatigue, mental fog, confusion 
  • Increased infections 
  • Loss of appetite, nausea, constipation, weight loss, and excessive thirst 

Diagnosis 
Sometimes, multiple myeloma can be revealed as part of a standard blood test during a physical. Other times, signs and symptoms indicate the need for further testing. Your healthcare provider (HCP) will typically use several tests to determine if you have multiple myeloma: bone marrow biopsies, blood and urine tests, and imaging tests (such as CT, MRI or PET scans, and X-rays). 

Urine tests can reveal the presence of M protein, which may point to multiple myeloma. Blood tests also show if there is M protein in your bloodstream, as well as your calcium levels, immunoglobulin and other factors that can indicate the disease. Scans and x-rays reveal if your bones are weakened or have lesions, which are strongly associated with the cancer. 

Treatment options 
Many treatment options exist for multiple myeloma—plus, the options are evolving quickly as new methods are tested in clinical trials. Your treatment plan will vary based on your general health, as well as what stage of multiple myeloma you have, your age, symptoms and other factors. In some cases, your HCP may even opt for a “wait-and-see” approach if you do not have symptoms. 

Typically, treatments involve one or more of the following methods: 

  • Chemotherapy: Chemo can be administered as a pill or intravenously and attacks fast-growing cancer cells. 
  • Targeted therapy: These drugs work with precision to locate and attack cancer cells. 
  • Biological therapy: Also known as immunotherapy, these treatments work by using your body’s immune system to fight off the myeloma cells. 
  • Stem cell transplant: This replaces your unhealthy bone marrow with healthy bone marrow from your own body or a donor. 
  • Radiation: Targeted radiation is used to kill of myeloma cells in a set area. 
  • You may also get treatment for conditions associated with your cancer, such as anemia, bone loss or kidney problems. Your HCP can discuss your overall outlook—including, if you’d like to know—the survival rate by cancer stage and provide an in-depth view into your prognosis. 

Medically reviewed in October 2018. Updated in February 2021. 

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