Multiple Myeloma: About Multiple Myeloma

Multiple Myeloma is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow arising from a type of white blood cell called a plasma cell. Multiple myeloma, sometimes referred to as MM, or simply as myeloma, affects about 22,000 Americans each year.

Plasma cells normally reside in the bone marrow where they make proteins (antibodies or immunoglobulins) that help the immune system fight infection.

When plasma cells grow out of control and become cancerous, they are called myeloma cells. As these cancer cells increase, they crowd the bone marrow so it can no longer produce enough healthy cells. As the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells decline, patients may develop anemia, appearing pale, tired or short of breath. A decline in platelets that normally help the blood clot may lead to easy bruising or bleeding. A decline in white blood cells puts patients at increased risk for infections that can be life-threatening.

Myeloma cells also produce abnormal proteins (monoclonal or M-proteins) that make the kidneys to work harder to filter the blood, thus leading to kidney damage.

Myeloma cells affect the cells that keep bones healthy. Bones are constantly being broken down and rebuilt, a process that ensures they remain strong. In myeloma, a signal is sent to the osteoclasts, cells that break the bones down, but there is no corresponding message sent to the osteoblasts, the cells that rebuild the bones. Further myeloma cells can also form a mass weakening the surrounding bone structure leading to an increased risk of fracture. As the bones degenerate, calcium is also released into the blood causing symptoms such as fatigue, constipation and confusion.

When myeloma cells grow in just one area of the bones or soft tissues they may form a tumor known as a solitary plasmacytoma. If no other evidence of disease is found beyond this isolated tumor, the patient is often treated with local therapy such as radiation.