Multiple myeloma is a blood cancer of the plasma cells. Plasma cells are lymphocytes that begin as B cells, a specific type of white blood cell. When B cells respond to an infection, they change into plasma cells that make antibodies to attack and kill what is causing the infection.
Plasma cells are found inside your bones in the bone marrow, which is a soft tissue inside the bone that makes cells that become different parts of your blood. When plasma cells become cancerous, causing multiple myeloma, they can grow more quickly than normal cells, causing them to block or crowd out normal blood-forming cells. Due to this, multiple myeloma can cause low blood counts, lessening the number of normal blood elements.
- Anemia– anemia is a decrease in red blood cells and can occur in multiple myeloma. Since red blood cells carry oxygen throughout your body, people with anemia can become weak or tired very easily.
- Thrombocytopenia– multiple myeloma can cause a reduction in the number of platelets in your blood. Platelets are the part of your body that helps form clots to stop you from bleeding. People with multiple myeloma who have thrombocytopenia tend to have more bruising and are at increased risk of bleeding.
- Leukemia– when your body has a shortage of white blood cells, the condition is called leukopenia and can lead to your immune system having a harder time fighting infection.
Another health-related issue caused by multiple myeloma is weakening of your bones, which can lead to an increased rate of bone fractures. Your bones are constantly remodeling in order to maintain their strength. Myeloma cells interfere with that process and can also form masses of plasma cells within bones. This can lead to more calcium being released into your blood, leading potentially to other health issues.
If your doctor suspects you have multiple myeloma, he or she may test your blood for abnormal levels of calcium and your urine for certain proteins associated with the disease. To make the final diagnosis, your physician would need to perform a biopsy and have a pathologist determine if multiple myeloma exists.
Who is at Risk?
A risk factor is anything that changes a person’s chance of getting a disease, such as cancer. People who have no risk factors can still get the disease. Also, having a risk factor, or even several, does not mean that a person will get the disease.
- Age – the risk of developing multiple myeloma goes up as people age. Less than 1% of cases are diagnosed in people younger than 35. Most people diagnosed with this cancer are at least 65 years old.
- Gender – men are slightly more likely to develop multiple myeloma than women.
- Race – multiple myeloma is more than twice as common in African Americans than in white Americans.
- Family history – Multiple myeloma seems to run in some families. Someone who has a sibling or parent with myeloma is more likely to get it than someone who does not have this family history. Still, most patients have no affected relatives, so this accounts for only a small number of cases.
- Obesity – being overweight or obese increases a person’s risk of developing myeloma.¹
- Having other plasma cell diseases – people with monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS) or solitary plasmacytoma are at higher risk of developing multiple myeloma than those who do not have these diseases.
- American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/diet-physical-activity/body-weight-and-cancer-risk.html. Accessed April 16, 2019