What is multiple myeloma?

Multiple myeloma (also known as Kahler’s disease) is a kind of blood cancer that causes the body to produce abnormal plasma cells. The plasma cells become cancerous and multiply.

Plasma cells are white blood cells. They are part of your immune system. In a healthy person, the plasma cells are in the bone marrow, which is soft tissue inside the bones. They produce healthy proteins called antibodies, an important part of our immune system that find and attack germs and prevent our body from infections.

As the cancerous plasma cells multiply, they:

  • Build up in the bone marrow (spongy material inside your bones), weakens the bone and results in bone pain and fractures.
  • Produce excessive abnormal antibodies (called M protein) that can accumulate in the organs, especially in the kidneys, and can affects the function of kidneys.
  • Accumulate in the bone marrow, outnumber the normal blood cells and limit your body’s ability to make healthy blood cells (platelets, red and white blood cells).

People with low grade multiple myeloma may not have any symptoms at first. This condition is called smoldering multiple myeloma. As the cancer progresses, it can lead to bone pain, a weakened immune system, bone loss and other health problems. Though now good treatments are available to control myeloma, presently there is no cure available for multiple myeloma. Doctors can treat symptoms and may be able to fully control the disease or slow the production of cancerous cells.

Who does multiple myeloma affect?

The majority of people with multiple myeloma are over age 65. The risk of developing the condition increases as you get older.

You have an increased chance of developing the condition if you are:

  • Over age 65.
  • Male.
  • African American.
  • Obese.
  • A person with a first-degree relative with multiple myeloma (in some cases).
  • Exposed to radiation, pesticides and other chemical.

People who have a disorder called monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS) are at the risk of developing multiple myeloma. MGUS is a pre-cancerous condition which increases plasma cells in the body. These cells produce abnormal proteins which are detected in the urine and blood of patients. People with this condition usually don’t have any symptoms and don’t need treatment, but need close monitoring.

How common is multiple myeloma?

Multiple myeloma is rare. Eight out of 100,000 people are diagnosed with multiple myeloma in the United States every year. In 2017, there were an estimated 140,779 people in the U.S. who had this type of blood cancer. Most people with multiple myeloma are over 65.

What causes multiple myeloma?

The exact cause of the multiple myeloma is still unclear. Genetic abnormalities called mutations along with the environmental factors, such as exposure to radiation or certain chemicals, chronic inflammation or infections might play a role in this cancer.

What are the symptoms of multiple myeloma?

The first symptom many people notice is bone pain, usually in the back, hips or ribs. As the disease progresses, symptoms include:

  • Decreased bone density, bone pain and bones that fracture (break) easily.
  • Fatigue, low energy and weakness.
  • Nausea, vomiting and weight loss.
  • Unexplained fever.
  • Increased infections.
  • Weakness or numbness in the limbs.
  • Skin that bruises or bleeds easily.
  • Reduced appetite and increased thirst.
  • Confusion or “fogginess.”

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