March: Multiple Myeloma Awareness Month

What is Multiple Myeloma?

This type of Cancer impacts a type of white blood cells known as a plasma cell. These are typically involved in the recognition of exogenous bodily threats that may cause detriments to one’s health. For example, this may include foreign bacteria or viruses. Plasma cells also play a role in making antibodies that help reduce the rates of re-infection. This form of cancer is potentially dangerous in two ways. First, it causes these cells to produce abnormal proteins that impede their natural function and produce complications. Secondly, they can crowd and accumulate in blood marrow, impeding the production of healthy blood cells and other immune cells.

What is its cause? 

A wide array of individual and environmental factors may potentially cause a genetic mutation leading to the transformation of healthy cells into cancerous ones. Although it is difficult to determine a specific trigger, with respect to Multiple Myeloma, a relatively benign condition known as monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS) may act as a trigger. In the United States, MGUS is present in 3% of those above the age of 50. Other potential risk factors include:

  • Sex: men are more likely to develop the disease.
  • Race: Black individuals of this designation are two types more likely to develop the disorder when compared to white people.
  • Family history: as with any other cancer, a family history of Multiple Myeloma increases one risk of developing it.
  • History of MGUS – 1% of those diagnosed with this disorder develop Multiple Myeloma.

What are its signs and symptoms?

The signs and symptoms outline below are not exclusive to multiple myeloma. As such, it is important to seek your doctor’s advice should the following symptoms present themselves:

  • Bone pain
  • Constipation
  • Frequent infections
  • Rapid/unexplained weight loss
  • Numbness or weakness in the legs

How is diagnosis achieved?

Diagnosis is multi-faceted and can be facilitated through the following:

  • Urine tests: M proteins can be indicative of this form of cancer and can be detected in urine. When found in urine, these proteins are called Bence Jones proteins.
  • Blood tests: as with many other forms of cancer, blood protein markers may be present that could potentially provide evidence of multiple myeloma.
  • Bone marrow examination – laboratory testing via a biopsy can help determine the potential presence of cancer.

How is it treated?

Treatment options are varied and are determined on a patient-to-patient basis. Upon diagnosis, an individual may potentially be a candidate for one or multiple forms of the following:

  • Biological therapy: this aids your immune system in fighting myeloma cells.
  • Chemotherapy: drugs under this umbrella act to eliminate rapidly multiplying cells, which includes myeloma cells.
  • Bone marrow transplant: a procedure used to replace your diseased bone with healthy bone.
  • Radiation therapy: this involves the use of focal radiation in an attempt to halt the progress and growth of myeloma cells.

Regular screening and blood work are key to detecting this cancer early. Oftentimes routine blood work may indicate the presence of protein markers potentially suggestive of Multiple Myeloma. Early detection significantly improves patient outcomes and quality of life.