Frequently Asked Questions About Multiple Myeloma

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about multiple myeloma.

Q:What is multiple myeloma?

A: Multiple myeloma is a kind of cancer that begins in plasma cells, a type of white blood cell. These cells make proteins called antibodies (immunoglobulins) to help the body fight infection. When plasma cells grow out of control, they build up either in the bone marrow or in organs. The tumors that are formed can destroy normal bone tissue. This can cause bone pain and sometimes fractures.

Cancerous plasma cells can also crowd the bone marrow, preventing the healthy cells from working normally. That means people with multiple myeloma may not make enough white and red blood cells. They may also have fewer platelets, which are needed for clotting blood. Plus, since the plasma cells help the body fight disease, if a group of them is cancerous, the body is not as able to fight infection. People with multiple myeloma are at greater risk of getting infections.

Q: Who gets multiple myeloma?

A: Most people who get multiple myeloma are 65 or older. It is rarely seen in people younger than age 40. More men get it than women, and more African American people get it than Caucasian people. Multiple myeloma is a relatively uncommon cancer. Doctors are not sure why one person gets it and another one does not.

Q: What are the risk factors for multiple myeloma?

A: Certain factors can make one person more likely to get multiple myeloma than another person. These are called risk factors. Some risk factors have been identified, but these only slightly raise a person’s risk of getting the disease. Most people with multiple myeloma have no known risk factors. Doctors have identified some risk factors for multiple myeloma, but they are not sure how much a part these play in someone getting the disease. Here are some things that may increase the risk for multiple myeloma.

  • Age. Less than 1 percent of cases are diagnosed in people younger than age 35.

  • Gender. Men are slightly more likely to develop multiple myeloma.

  • Race. African Americans are more likely to have this cancer.

  • Exposure to radiation. This accounts for a small number of cases.

  • Family history. Having a sibling or parent who has it may increase your risk.

  • Exposure to chemicals. Your risk may increase if you work with certain substances, such as petroleum products.

  • Certain health conditions. Being overweight or obese may increase your risk.  

  • Certain plasma cell diseases. These include solitary plasmacytoma and monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS).

Q: What are the symptoms of multiple myeloma?

A: A person’s symptoms depend on how advanced the cancer is. People may feel pain in their bones, often in their back or ribs. Some people may get broken bones since multiple myeloma causes the bones to weaken. Other people feel tired and weak, they may have more infections than usual, and they may lose weight or have other problems. These symptoms do not mean that a person definitely has multiple myeloma. Other things could be causing them. People should talk with their doctor if they are having any of these symptoms.

Q: How is multiple myeloma diagnosed?

A: The doctor asks questions about a person’s medical history, family history, and history of exposures. The doctor also does a physical exam to check for signs of the cancer. The doctor may order many of these tests to help make the diagnosis:

  • Blood tests

  • Urine tests

  • X-rays

  • Computerized tomography (CT scan)

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI scan)

  • Positron emission tomography (PET scan)

  • Biopsy, if the tumor is in soft tissue

  • Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy

Q: Should everyone get a second opinion for multiple myeloma?

A: Many people with cancer get a second opinion from another doctor. There are many reasons to get one. Here are some of those reasons.

Reference: Cancer section on Better Medicine

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Multiple myeloma is cancer of the plasma cells in bone marrow.