Cancer InDepth: Multiple Myeloma
Multiple myeloma is a relatively rare cancer of the plasma cells. Plasma cells normally produce proteins, or antibodies, to help the immune system fight infection. Myeloma occurs when the body produces too many abnormal plasma cells, which are called myeloma cells. These extra myeloma cells produce excess proteins in the blood. This can cause health problems. Myeloma cells also collect and grow in the bone marrow, the soft interior of the bone. This often results in decreased production of blood cells. The types of blood cells include:
- Red blood cells—carry oxygen to the body
- White blood cells—help fight off infection
- Platelets—help the blood to clot
CausesThe cause of multiple myeloma is not known. Doctors think exposure to toxins, radiation, or a virus may play a role. Inherited gene mutations may also lead to multiple myeloma. In nearly all cases, doctors have no idea why a particular person develops the disease.According to the American Cancer Society, about 20,580 Americans are diagnosed with multiple myeloma each year. Slightly more men than women are affected. And 10,580 people with the disease die from it annually. Multiple myeloma affects older adults. The average age of people with this disease is 65 years. It is uncommon for myeloma to occur in people younger than 35.
SymptomsSymptoms of early stage multiple myeloma include:
- Persistent bone pain, often severe—Pain is most commonly in the back. But, it can also be in the limbs or ribs.
- Broken bones
- Repeated infections
- Nausea and vomiting
- Difficulty urinating
- Abnormal bleeding
- Visual problems
ComplicationsComplications of multiple myeloma typically relate to problems with blood function. These complications include the following:
- Anemia —This is characterized by a lack of red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the body’s cells. Anemia causes fatigue because the cells do not receive enough oxygen. It can also aggravate a heart condition in a person with angina or other heart disease, in which the heart is already suffering from insufficient blood supply. The additional lack of oxygen in the blood from anemia compounds the problem.
- Increased risk of infection—Because there are not enough white cells to fight bacteria, viruses, and other microbes, infection is more likely.
- Easy bleeding—Decreased production of platelets impairs blood-clotting ability. This leads to bleeding easily and for a long time.
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Multiple myeloma. Mayo Clinic website. Available at: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/multiple-myeloma/DS00415 . Accessed February 22, 2010.
Multiple myeloma/other plasma cell neoplasms. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/myeloma . Accessed March 4, 2010.
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What are the key statistics about multiple myeloma? American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/cancer/multiplemyeloma/detailedguide/multiple-myeloma-key-statistics . Updated May 2009. Accessed March 4, 2010.
What are the risk factors for multiple myeloma? American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/cancer/multiplemyeloma/detailedguide/multiple-myeloma-risk-factors . Updated May 2009. Accessed March 4, 2010.
- Reviewer: Mohei Abouzied, MD, FACP
- Review Date: 09/2014
- Update Date: 09/17/2014
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