Multiple myeloma is a cancer of a type of white blood cell found in bone marrow. All of us have these white blood cells, called plasma cells. When we’re healthy, plasma cells create antibodies that help us fight off infections.
In people with Multiple myeloma, however, cancerous plasma cells grow uncontrolled, taking up real estate normally occupied by healthy blood cells. This proliferation of cancer cells produce abnormal proteins that lead to complications, including compromised kidney function, brittle bones, anemia, neuropathy, fatigue, fractures and even death.
If you don’t know much about multiple myeloma, it’s because it accounts for only 2 percent of all cancers. But as you may expect, multiple myeloma, like many other diseases, hits Black folks harder. It is the most common blood cancer for us, and we account for about 20 percent of all patients living with this disease. We are often younger than our white counterparts at diagnosis, and we are two to three times more likely to die of the disease.
So why do we bear the brunt of this cancer? Though experts don’t know for sure—there’s some thought that African Americans may have a genetic predisposition to the mutations that cause multiple myeloma—what is clear is that we typically present at a later stage of the disease.
Multiple myeloma doesn’t “happen completely brand new,” said Neha Korde, M.D., an assistant professor in the multiple myeloma department of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center at the recent 2021 Black Health Matters Winter Summit.
In fact, this cancer is always preceded by a more benign condition, Monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance, or MGUS. People diagnosed with MGUS are usually just watched by doctors as the condition doesn’t cause the organ damage multiple myeloma does.
This is “important,” Korde said, “because it implies it can be caught early and tracked along the way.” If the disease is caught earlier, in the MGUS stage, the outcome is better than if someone is diagnosed with full-blown multiple myeloma.
Key, Korde said, is education. “Multiple myeloma is considered incurable, but it’s very treatable. Therapy takes a multidisciplinary approach that begins and ends with knowledge.”
For more information on multiple myeloma and the treatment options available, visit cancer.org.