This blood cancer is twice as likely to strike African Americans
Cheryl Boyce, a health-care advocate, had heard of multiple myeloma, but the disease was the furthest thing from her mind when she went to have a prescription refilled. She had been having puzzling symptoms: bone pain and “tiredness. It’s not a regular being tired, but a deep, dark tired,” she says. “The kind where you can sleep for days and wake up just as tired as when you went to sleep.”
Boyce mentioned the symptoms to her doctor, and he ran blood tests. She learned she had multiple myeloma and the importance of early intervention. “My multiple myeloma is not curable, but it’s treatable,” she says. “I’ve been in remission for some time, and I lead an active lifestyle.”
With that diagnosis, Boyce became part of a growing community. The National Cancer Institute reports a 1 percent increase each year in incidence of the disease since 1975. Multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow (and the third most common blood cancer after lymphoma and leukemia), is twice as likely to strike blacks as it is other races and ethnicities. But it is a disease about which the public knows very little.
That’s something Craig Cole, M.D., a hematologist at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, told Black Health Matters he’s working to change.
Black Health Matters: What is multiple myeloma?
Craig Cole, M.D.: It is a cancer that arises from the bone marrow. The marrow makes all the blood cells and blood plasma. Like any cell in the body, bone marrow cells, specifically the plasma cells, can become cancerous. When it does, that’s called multiple myeloma. Plasma cells almost exclusively go to the bone, causing bone thinning and lesions, including in the spine, arms and legs. There are multiple bones involved, that’s why the multiple.
Why don’t we know more about this disease?
Dr. Cole: Even though it affects African Americans two times as much as Caucasian groups, there hasn’t been a lot of dissemination of knowledge or publicity. That’s in part because in the past we didn’t have very good treatments for multiple myeloma. It’s important to detect this disease early and raise awareness.
What are the risk factors for multiple myeloma?
Dr. Cole: As I mentioned, the incidence in people of African-American decent is twice as high as in Caucasians and other races. It’s a disease of older individuals; children do not get this disease. The average age is about 70. It’s more common in men than women. There’s some thought that long-term low-dose exposure to radiation might contribute. It’s not hereditary, and it doesn’t run in families.
What are the symptoms for this cancer?
Dr. Cole: Usually profound fatigue. Patients can also feel anemic, have shortness of breath. They may have a sallow appearance. They can also have pain—unexpected, sudden pain and discomfort—in the bones.
Why are we more likely to be diagnosed with multiple myeloma than our white counterparts?
Dr. Cole: We don’t have the specifics of why African Americans are more likely to get it. It’s not linked to socio-economic status. It’s likely linked to a genetic cause that is the difference between the races.
Why is it important for the African-American community to know about this disease? And where can they get more information?
Dr. Cole: Empowerment and dissemination of knowledge is critical for this disease. We talked earlier about people not knowing much about this disease. This is how we change that. My Multiple Myeloma has information for patients and caregivers and news about clinical trials.
[Photo: University of Michigan]