What Is Multiple Myeloma?
In multiple myeloma, a type of white blood cell called a plasma cell multiplies unusually. Normally, they make antibodies that fight infections. But in multiple myeloma, they release too much protein (called immunoglobulin) into your bones and blood. It builds up throughout your body and causes organ damage.
The plasma cells also crowd normal blood cells in your bones. They release chemicals that trigger other cells to dissolve bone. The weak areas of bone this creates are called lytic lesions.
As multiple myeloma gets worse, those plasma cells begin to spill out of your bone marrow and spread through your body. This causes more organ damage.
No one knows what causes multiple myeloma. But you’re more likely to get it if:
- You’re older than 65
- You’re African-American
- You have a family member with it
- You’re overweight or obese
If you have one these other plasma cell diseases, you may be more likely to get multiple myeloma:
- Monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS)
- Solitary plasmacytoma
Early on, multiple myeloma may cause no symptoms. As time passes, you may have:
- Bone pain
- Weakness and fatigue
- Weight loss
Getting a Diagnosis
Your doctor may test you for multiple myeloma if a blood test shows you have:
- Too much calcium in your blood (your doctor may call it hypercalcemia)
- Anemia (too few red blood cells)
- Kidney problems
- High protein levels in your blood, along with a low albumin level (your doctor may say you have a "globulin gap")
If your doctor thinks you have multiple myeloma, he may order blood tests:
- A CBC, which stands for complete blood count. It measures the different kinds of cells in your blood.
- Blood urea nitrogen, also known as BUN, and creatinine. These check how well your kidneys are working.
Other specialized blood and urine tests check for how much and what kinds of abnormal proteins your body is making.
After your test results come in, your doctor may want to do a bone marrow biopsy. He’ll put a needle into a bone, usually in your hip, to get a sample of bone marrow to check the number of plasma cells in it.
He may also want you to get X-rays. They can show spots of bone weakened by multiple myeloma. Sometimes you may also need a CT scan, MRI, or PET scan.
Multiple myeloma cases are usually graded as high, intermediate, or standard risk.
If you don’t have symptoms, your doctor may choose to watch you closely rather than start treatment right away.
If you do have symptoms, your doctor will work with you to come up with a treatment plan. It will aim to improve your quality of life by easing your symptoms and helping you get good nutrition.
People who are considered high-risk might want to look into a clinical trial for an existing or new treatment. Research is ongoing, including clinical trials to find more effective drugs and combinations.
Which drugs your doctor chooses depends on your age and how aggressive your cancer is.
Chemotherapy: Chemo drugs are most often used in combinations. The ones that treat multiple myeloma are:
- Bendamustine (Treanda)
- Cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan)
- Doxorubicin (Adriamycin)
- Etoposide (VP-16)
- Liposomal doxorubicin (Doxil)
- Melphalan (Alkeran, Evomela)
- Vincristine (Oncovin)
Corticosteroids: These drugs can help other treatments work. When you're getting chemo, the doctor might prescribe dexamethasone or prednisone to ease side effects.
Targeted therapies: These medications target proteins, genes, or tissues and prevent cancer from growing.
Immunomodulatory drugs strengthen your immune cells to help them attack cancer cells. They also help starve the myeloma cells in your bone marrow by preventing new blood vessels from forming:
Monoclonal antibodies help your immune system spot and destroy myeloma cells. You might hear your doctor call this immunotherapy:
- Daratumumab (Darzalex)
- Elotuzumab (Empliciti)
If you don’t have symptoms, your doctor might start you on one of these drugs to prevent myeloma from getting to a point where you need further treatment.
Proteasome inhibitors stop the process that eats up extra proteins in cells. Myeloma cells make lots of proteins. When they build up, the cells die:
HDAC inhibitors, like panobinostat (Farydak), affect which genes are active inside cells. Your doctor may prescribe one if you've already tried bortezomib and an immunomodulatory drug.
Interferon: Bone marrow cells and some white blood cells release this hormone-like substance. When it's used as a drug, it can slow the growth of myeloma cells. You might take interferon to help keep myeloma that's been successfully treated in remission.
Stem Cell Transplant
It won’t work for everyone, but if your doctor thinks you’re a good fit for it, they may start with a stem cell transplant. They'll use a machine to remove some of your stem cells, then freeze and store them. Or they may use stem cells taken from a donor.
Next, you get high-dose chemotherapy, sometimes with radiation, too. This will destroy almost all the cells in your bone marrow -- the plasma cells that cause the disease as well as healthy ones.
After that, the saved or donated stem cells are put into your bloodstream. These special cells can replace the destroyed bone marrow and start making new, healthy blood. It may take several weeks to refresh all of your blood cells.
Stem cell transplantation often helps you live longer, but it doesn't cure multiple myeloma, and it can cause serious complications. For example, it can make you more likely to get infections.
Your doctor might suggest other treatments if your multiple myeloma causes painful bone damage.
Bisphosphonates: This type of drug helps slow the process of breaking down bones. You can take these medicines as pills or get them through an IV needle. They include pamidronate (Aredia) and zoledronic acid.
Be especially thorough with your brushing and flossing while you're taking one. It’s rare, but bisphosphonates can damage your jaw. Dental work makes it more likely to happen.
Monoclonal antibodies: The medication denosumab (Xgeva) can help interrupt or even stop the cells that are breaking down the bone
Radiation therapy: The doctor will direct a beam from a machine to a bone or other affected body part. The beam kills cancer cells, which can ease your pain and strengthen weakened bones.
Taking Care of Yourself
To help you feel better while you get treatment:
- Eat a healthy diet. A dietitian can help you choose the right foods, especially if you're having trouble with certain foods because of your treatment.
- Exercise. Stay active to improve your mood and energy level, and protect your bones.
- Get plenty of rest. Take naps or breaks during the day to recoup your energy.
- Take advantage of good days to do the things you enjoy most.
- Ask for help when you need it, and seek out support groups to help you and your family manage this disease.
What to Expect
Multiple myeloma varies widely among people. Some will live for years with few symptoms. With others, the condition gets worse quickly. Identifying the forms of multiple myeloma is often challenging for doctors.
Doctors have systems that predict survival rates. The simplest and most common uses the blood levels of two substances: albumin and beta-2-microglobulin. A higher albumin level and a lower beta-2-microglobulin level suggest a better chance for longer survival.
Other systems use multiple lab or DNA tests in plasma cells.
Knowing how aggressive your multiple myeloma is can help you and your doctor find the best plan for you.
Where to Find Support
To learn more about multiple myeloma, and to find support for you and your family, visit the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation's website.