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Multiple Myeloma

What is Multiple Myeloma?

Multiple myeloma is a type of cancer formed by cancerous plasma cells in the blood. Normal plasma cells are an important part of the body’s immune system. The immune system is made up of several types of cells that work together to fight infections. Lymph cells (called “lymphocytes”) are the main type of cell in the immune system. There are two types of lymph cells: T cells and B cells.

When B cells respond to an infection, they change into plasma cells. The plasma cells are mainly in the bone marrow—the soft, inner part of some bones. The plasma cells make proteins called antibodies that attack and help kill germs.

When plasma cells grow out of control, they can form a tumor, usually in the bone marrow. This type of tumor is called a myeloma, and if there are many of them they are called multiple myeloma. Having too many plasma cells can cause problems in the bone marrow where blood cells are made. The bone marrow may not be able to make enough red blood cells, platelets or normal white blood cells.

The myeloma cells do not protect the body from infections. They make antibodies just as normal plasma cells, but these antibodies do not attack germs.

Facts: According to the Illinois State Cancer Registry, in 2008, about 740 new cases of multiple myeloma will be diagnosed in Illinois. Of these, about 390 will be in men and about 350 will be in women. About 470 Illinoisans are expected to die of multiple myeloma in 2008.

What are the Causes and Risk Factors of Multiple Myeloma?

While the exact cause of multiple myeloma is not known, scientists are learning how changes in DNA can cause plasma cells to become cancerous. DNA is the substance that tells our cells how to behave. Cancer can be caused by changes (mutations) in the DNA that controls cell growth.

Scientists have identified a few risk factors that make a person more likely to develop multiple myeloma. But most people with these risk factors never get the disease. Most people with multiple myeloma have no known risk factors besides age.

Age: Age is the largest risk factor for multiple myeloma. Half of the people found to have this cancer are older than 71 years of age. Only 1 percent of cases are in people younger than 40.
Gender: Men are more likely to get this cancer than women.
Race: Multiple myeloma is about twice as common in African Americans and the reason is not known.
Radiation exposure: Being exposed to radioactivity has been suggested as a risk factor, but this would account for only a very small number of cases.
Exposure on the job: Some studies suggest that workers in some oil-related industries may be at a higher risk.
Weight: A recent study by the American Cancer Society found that being overweight increases a person’s risk of developing myeloma.
Other plasma cell diseases: Many people with other plasma cell diseases will later develop multiple myeloma.

What are the Symptoms of Multiple Myeloma?

Common symptoms of multiple myeloma include:

  • bone pain usually in the back (most common early symptom of myeloma)
  • broken bones, usually in the spine
  • weakness and tiredness (anemia in contribution)
  • pale complexion from anemia, a common medical problem for patients with myeloma
  • excessive thirst
  • frequent infections and fevers
  • unintentional weight loss
  • nausea or constipation
  • frequent urination

Most often, these symptoms are not due to cancer. Other health problems can cause the same symptoms. It is important to report any of these symptoms to a doctor.

How to Prevent Multiple Myeloma

With multiple myeloma, there are no risk factors you can avoid to prevent the disease. There is no known way to prevent the disease in those who have other plasma cell diseases.