Multiple myeloma is a type of cancer that starts in the plasma cells of the bone marrow. These protein-making cells normally make all of the different kinds of proteins that comprise the antibodies of the immune system. In multiple myeloma, these cells become cancerous and stop making different forms of protein in response to the immune system’s needs, producing instead a single abnormal type of protein.
These cells grow out of control, weakening the bone around the marrow, leading to bone lesions that may cause pain or fractures of the damaged bones. Over time, these cancerous cells can spill out of the bone marrow, traveling to other parts of the body and damaging organs. The disease can cause anemia and kidney problems.
Scientists don’t know what causes plasma cells to become malignant, but research suggests several possible culprits, including a genetic abnormality; environmental exposure to herbicides, insecticides, benzene, hair dyes and radiation; inflammation or infection. You’re also at an increased risk of developing multiple myeloma if you are 65 or older, male, African American and overweight or obese. Your chances go up even more if you have a family history of the disease.
People with multiple myeloma may not have any symptoms at first. As the disease becomes more advanced, however, they may experience weakness due to anemia, bone pain and damage to the kidneys. Other symptoms of multiple myeloma include:
Loss of appetite
Bone tenderness or pain
Weakness and fatigue
Shortness of breath
There is no cure for the disease, but current treatments are more effective and less toxic than they were in the past. Therapy may reduce the occurrence and severity of symptoms and prolong life. Ultimately, the prognosis for multiple myeloma varies depending on the stage at diagnosis and response to therapy.