Multiple myeloma is a cancer of the bone marrow, starting in the plasma cells. In multiple myeloma a large numbers of abnormal plasma cells – myeloma cells – are produced.
- These fill up the bone marrow and interfere with production of normal white cells, red cells and platelets.
- Normal plasma cells produce antibodies (also called immunoglobulins) to help fight infection. In myeloma, the abnormal plasma cells release only one type of antibody known as paraprotein, which has no use.
- Multiple myeloma is caused because the DNA of the plasma cell is damaged. This means that the cells become cancerous. The cells then divide and spread throughout the bone marrow.
Myeloma is usually found in more active bones of the body – such as the hips, ribs and skull. This is why it is called multiple myeloma, because it is found in multiple sites.
Multiple myeloma is very rare in people under 40, and mainly occurs in people over 50.
What causes multiple myeloma?
There are no known causes of multiple myeloma.
What are the symptoms?
- Back pain is often the main symptom of multiple myeloma, as it is often found in the spine.
- Tiredness caused by anaemia.
- Repeated coughs, colds and infections because of the low levels of immunity (because there are no antibodies).
- Kidney infection caused by the paraproteins.
TIP: If you have any of these symptoms you should have them checked by a doctor - but remember, they are common to many illnesses other than multiple myeloma.
How is it diagnosed?
- People suspected of having multiple myeloma will need to have blood tests and urine tests, to see if there are paraproteins present.
If paraproteins are present then a bone marrow biopsy will probably be performed.
- X-rays or bone scans are also performed to determine if there are any areas of bone that have been weakened or eroded by the myeloma cells.
How is it treated?
- Multiple myeloma is treatable, but not generally curable.
- Treatment may involve chemotherapy and steroid treatment.
- Often myeloma is slow to develop and so often doesn’t need treatment initially.
A stem cell transplant may be used to try and induce remission.
Radiotherapy may be used to strengthen the bone and reduce pain in the affected areas.
Surgery may also occasionally be used to prevent fractures or, rarely, to remove areas of myeloma that are pressing on parts of the body such as the spinal cord.