Multiple myeloma is a type of cancer affecting plasma cells, which are a mature form of white blood cell found in the bone marrow. Healthy plasma cells are part of the immune system, and fight infections by producing antibodies. In people with multiple myeloma, the plasma cells do not function properly — they grow and divide uncontrollably, and are not able to produce antibodies normally.
Of the approximately 1000 Australians who are diagnosed with multiple myeloma each year, almost all are older than 40 years. Multiple myeloma is most common in people aged 70 years and older, and men are affected more often than women.
Your bone marrow (found inside most bones in the body) is responsible for producing blood cells — red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. In people with multiple myeloma, the abnormal plasma cells (myeloma cells) crowd out the normal bone marrow, so it can’t produce the usual number of healthy blood cells. This can cause anaemia, bleeding problems, and weakening of the immune system.
The myeloma cells can also invade and weaken the bones themselves, causing bone pain and sometimes even fractures. In addition, the myeloma cells usually produce abnormal proteins — known as paraproteins — which can damage the kidneys if present in large amounts.
Some of the characteristic signs and symptoms of the disease include:
People with multiple myeloma sometimes also have problems with elevated blood calcium levels. This can occur when calcium from bones that are affected by myeloma dissolves into the blood. Symptoms that may suggest a raised blood calcium level include stomach pains, constipation, nausea, excessive thirst and urination, and mental confusion.
Doctors don’t know what causes multiple myeloma. Although it has been suggested that exposure to radiation and certain chemicals (e.g. dioxins) may increase your risk of developing this disease, they have not been proven to be risk factors.
People suspected of having multiple myeloma will usually need to have blood and urine tests, looking for evidence of paraproteins (the abnormal proteins produced by myeloma cells). X-rays or scans of the bones are also performed to determine if there are any areas of bone that have been weakened or eroded by the myeloma cells. A bone marrow biopsy — a test that involves taking a small sample of bone marrow, which is examined under a microscope to look for myeloma cells — is often required.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for multiple myeloma. However, there are treatments available which can treat the symptoms and complications, stabilise the disease, and slow down its progress. In most people, treatment can control the disease for between several months to a few years.
If you have multiple myeloma that is still in its early stages and you don’t have any symptoms, you may not need any treatment. But your condition will need to be carefully monitored by your doctor, so that treatment can be started if necessary.
If you do have symptoms, chemotherapy or radiotherapy may be of benefit. You may also need other medications, such as corticosteroid tablets or medications to strengthen your bones and prevent your blood calcium level from rising. Some people may need a stem cell or bone marrow transplant.
It’s a good idea to drink plenty of fluids to help prevent the abnormal proteins produced by the myeloma cells from damaging your kidneys. Also, try to stay as active as possible while you are feeling well — this can help prevent your bones from becoming weaker.
Last Reviewed: 03 August 2005