What is Myeloma?

What is Multiple Myeloma?

Multiple myeloma is a type of cancer. Cancer is a group of many related diseases. Myeloma is a cancer that starts in plasma cells, a type of white blood cell. It’s the most common type of plasma cell cancer.

Normal Blood Cells

Most blood cells develop from cells in the bone marrow called stem cells. Bone marrow is the soft material in the center of most bones.

Stem cells mature into different types of blood cells. Each type has a special job:

  • White blood cells help fight infection. There are several types of white blood cells.
  • Red blood cells carry oxygen to tissues throughout the body.
  • Platelets help form blood clots that control bleeding.

Plasma cells are white blood cells that make antibodies. Antibodies are part of the immune system. They work with other parts of the immune system to help protect the body from germs and other harmful substances. Each type of plasma cell makes a different antibody.

Normal plasma cells help protect the body from germs and other harmful substances.
Normal plasma cells help protect the body from germs and other harmful substances.

Myeloma Cells

Myeloma, like other cancers, begins in cells. In cancer, new cells form when the body doesn’t need them, and old or damaged cells don’t die when they should. These extra cells can form a mass of tissue called a growth or Tumor

Myeloma begins when a plasma cell becomes abnormal. The abnormal cell divides to make copies of itself. The new cells divide again and again, making more and more abnormal cells. These abnormal plasma cells are called myeloma cells.

In time, myeloma cells collect in the bone marrow. They may damage the solid part of the bone. When myeloma cells collect in several of your bones, the disease is called “multiple myeloma.” This disease may also harm other tissues and organs, such as the kidneys.

Myeloma cells make antibodies called M proteins and other proteins. These proteins can collect in the blood, urine, and organs.

Myeloma cell (abnormal plasma cell) making M proteins.
Myeloma cell (abnormal plasma cell) making M proteins.

Symptoms

Common symptoms of multiple myeloma include:

  • Bone pain, usually in the back and ribs
  • Broken bones, usually in the spine
  • Feeling weak and very tired
  • Feeling very thirsty
  • Frequent infections and fevers
  • Weight loss
  • Nausea or constipation
  • Frequent urination

Most often, these symptoms are not due to cancer. Other health problems may also cause these symptoms. Only a doctor can tell for sure. Anyone with these symptoms should tell the doctor so that problems can be diagnosed and treated as early as possible.

Diagnosis

Doctors sometimes find multiple myeloma after a routine blood test. More often, doctors suspect multiple myeloma after an x-ray for a broken bone. Usually though, patients go to the doctor because they are having other symptoms.

To find out whether such problems are from multiple myeloma or some other condition, your doctor may ask about your personal and family medical history and do a physical exam. Your doctor also may order some of the following tests:

  • Blood tests: The lab does several blood tests:
    • Multiple myeloma causes high levels of proteins in the blood. The lab checks the levels of many different proteins, including M protein and other immunoglobulins (antibodies), albumin, and beta-2-microglobulin.
    • Myeloma may also cause anemia and low levels of white blood cells and platelets. The lab does a complete blood count to check the number of white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets.
    • The lab also checks for high levels of calcium.
    • To see how well the kidneys are working, the lab tests for creatinine.
  • Urine tests: The lab checks for Bence Jones protein, a type of M protein, in urine. The lab measures the amount of Bence Jones protein in urine collected over a 24-hour period. If the lab finds a high level of Bence Jones protein in your urine sample, doctors will monitor your kidneys. Bence Jones protein can clog the kidneys and damage them.
  • X-rays: You may have x-rays to check for broken or thinning bones.An x-ray of your whole body can be done to see how many bones could be damaged by the myeloma.
  • Biopsy: Your doctor removes tissue to look for cancer cells. A biopsy is the only sure way to know whether myeloma cells are in your bone marrow. Before the sample is taken, local anesthesia is used to numb the area. This helps reduce the pain. Your doctor removes some bone marrow from your hip bone or another large bone. A pathologist uses a microscope to check the tissue for myeloma cells. There are two ways your doctor can obtain bone marrow. Some people will have both procedures during the same visit:
    • Bone marrow aspiration: The doctor uses a thick, hollow needle to remove samples of bone marrow.
    • Bone marrow biopsy: The doctor uses a very thick, hollow needle to remove a small piece of bone and bone marrow.

Appointments

For more information or to make an appointment:

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