Multiple myeloma is the most common cancer of its kind and accounts for about 1.4% of all U.S. cancers. However, the rate of incidences have increased by around 1% every year 1975, so that number is bound to rise.
Myeloma first occurs in bone marrow, where many blood cells are produced, including red blood cells and plasma cells. Plasma cells are part of the immune system, which protects the body from infections and diseases, but if genes or the environment distort them, they switch purposes. Instead of protecting the body, they grow out of control into a cancerous tumor. Multiple myeloma is the name for when a person has multiple tumors of this kind; otherwise, it’s just called an isolated plasmacytoma.
Besides a normal biopsy—where some of the bone marrow tissue is removed to be checked for cancer—there are other indicators that one has developed multiple myeloma. For example, the cancer can keep other blood cells from being produced in the bone marrow, leading to anemia (lack of red blood cells), increased bleeding and bruising (low blood platelet levels), and increased infections (decreased white blood cells).
Causing other problems
Further, the cancer can cause bone problems, like fractures. Bones are constantly being built and broken down as the body needs, but in multiple myeloma, the breakdown of bone cells tends to increase. The balance of breakdown and buildup is now skewed to the breakdown side, meaning bones lose cells and become weaker.
Other problems include kidney damage and failure, monoclonal gammopathy (where abnormal proteins are found in the blood), breathing problems, hypercalcemia (a result of bone cells dissolving), and light chain amyloidosis (a buildup of protein deposits in various body tissues).
Depending on how the myeloma affects you, along with your age and other factors, treatment will vary. Treatment for this cancer is tricky, but can include chemotherapy, surgery, stem cell transplant, and drugs known as bisphosphonates. Five-year survival rates are around 47%, but like other cancers, earlier diagnoses greatly increase survival rates (in this case, to nearly 69%)—so if you are concerned, please talk to a doctor.
(Image credit: Faculty of Medicine NTNU/Flickr Commons)