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Facts About Multiple Myeloma

  • Updated March 4, 2022

    Every year, approximately 34,000 people in the United States learn they have multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer that primarily affects people age 65 and older. Here are some key facts to know about this fairly rare cancer, and what you should keep an eye out for:

    1. Multiple myeloma is a cancer of plasma cells.

    Multiple myeloma, photo courtesy of the American Society of Hematology (ASH)
    Multiple myeloma, photo courtesy of the American Society of Hematology (ASH)

    Plasma cells are mainly found in bone marrow (the soft tissue inside bones) and are an important part of the immune system, producing antibodies that help the body attack and kill germs.

    Multiple myeloma happens when healthy plasma cells change (make an abnormal protein), become cancerous, and grow out of control (often damaging bone).

    “They start to lose the ability to respond to normal triggers that induce those cells to grow and expand,” said Michael Styler, MD, a hematologist/oncologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center. “In multiple myeloma, they just keep producing their proteins and they keep replicating.”

    These cancerous plasma cells can eventually fill up the bone marrow, making it difficult for it to produce red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.

    The disease is called multiple myeloma because people often have more than one area of bone damage when it is diagnosed.

    2. Multiple myeloma can have multiple symptoms—or no symptoms at all.

    People who have the disease don’t always have symptoms. Those who do may experience:

    • Bone pain or fractures
    • Weakness, shortness of breath, dizziness, or a reduced ability to exercise
    • Serious bleeding with minor cuts, scrapes, or bruises
    • Extreme thirst, severe constipation, adnominal pain, loss of appetite, or the need to urinate often
    • Increased infections

    3. It is difficult to diagnose multiple myeloma early.

    This is because symptoms can be vague and may first be attributed to other diseases. Sometimes however, multiple myeloma is caught early when a routine blood test reveals an abnormally high level of protein in the blood.

    “The doctor will do a blood panel and they’ll see a problem with the protein levels,” Styler said. “They’ll do another blood test and see that there’s an abnormal protein that’s being produced in the blood, and ultimately that leads to the diagnosis.”

    Testing may also involve X-rays, an MRI, or a PET scan. Most people have a bone marrow biopsy, too.

    4. Multiple myeloma treatment depends on its stage.

    “When someone is first diagnosed with multiple myeloma, the first step is to try to gauge how advanced it is,” Styler said.

    Some patients who have abnormal levels of protein in their blood but no other evidence of the cancer may simply undergo observation and not be treated until the disease progresses.

    When treatment is necessary, it may involve chemotherapy, radiation therapy, drug therapy, or a bone marrow transplant.

    Fox Chase’s Expertise

    Our team of oncologists and bone marrow transplant specialists has been treating patients with multiple myeloma for many years, offering the latest therapies and clinical trials for this disease.

    “We have a very mature transplant program that is ranked very highly. It’s a multidisciplinary program with physicians who dedicate themselves specifically to transplants and taking care of patients undergoing transplants and cellular therapy,” Styler said. “We perform 100 to 150 bone marrow transplants each year, and we’re pleased to offer many clinical trials. Our patients have access to the most recent advances and most promising treatments.”

    Learn more about Fox Chase’s Department of Bone Marrow Transplant and Cellular Therapies