Illustration of multiple myeloma plasma cells
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What Is It?

This blood cancer forms when plasma cells -- white blood cells that fight germs -- start to grow out of control. They’re found in marrow, the spongy tissue inside some of your bigger bones. Sometimes these abnormal plasma cells, known as myeloma cells, form a single tumor. That's called a solitary plasmacytoma. If you have more than one of these tumors, it’s called multiple myeloma.

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Why Do You Get It?

Like many cancers, multiple myeloma has no known cause. However, there are some things that can raise your chances. Age plays a role: Most people who have it are over 65. It’s twice as common in African-Americans and slightly more likely to affect men than women. If someone in your family has it, you're more likely to get it, too.  

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Can It Be Prevented?

You may wonder if there was anything you could have done to avoid this cancer. The answer is no. It doesn’t result from lifestyle choices, and you can’t discover it with early screening tests. In fact, multiple myeloma is hard to find early. Symptoms usually don’t show up until you’ve had it a while. But scientists learn more about what causes it every year, and new drugs are in the pipeline. 

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Symptom: Low Blood Counts

Plasma cells aren’t the only ones formed in your bone marrow. Other white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets are created there, too. However, myeloma cells can prevent bone marrow from making these healthy blood cells. That can lead to:

  • Anemia (low red blood cells), which can cause fatigue
  • Thrombocytopenia (low platelets), which can cause bruising or bleeding
  • Leukopenia (low white blood cells), which raises infection risk
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xray of fractured distal radius
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Symptom: Bone Fractures

Myeloma cells are a major enemy to bones. Believe it or not, your “old” bone is constantly being dissolved by cells called osteoclasts. Meanwhile, cells known as osteoblasts are making new bone. These things normally happen together. Myeloma cells speed up the breakdown process, but not the buildup. The result: Your bones get weak and can fracture easily.

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multiple myeloma in bone marrow
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Symptom: Infections

Plasma cells make antibodies, which fight germs. If you get a cold, they can create an antibody to attack the virus that’s making you sick. Abnormal plasma cells don’t do that. Myeloma cells multiply and quickly crowd out your healthy plasma cells, along with other white blood cells that protect you from infection. 

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Other Things to Watch For

Multiple myeloma can lead to health problems like:

  • Confusion and dizziness
  • Numbness or muscle weakness in your legs
  • Kidney problems

Because your bone dissolves faster than normal, you may have a high level of calcium in your blood. You might also feel really thirsty and dehydrated.

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illustration of bone marrow biopsy
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How Is It Diagnosed?

Blood tests can check for many red flags, like low blood cell counts and high calcium levels. X-rays can reveal bone loss. But the most important test for this cancer is a bone marrow biopsy. A doctor will insert a special needle into your bone and remove a tiny piece of tissue. He'll look at it with a microscope to see if you have myeloma cells.

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Should I Get Treatment?

It sounds crazy, but if you don’t have symptoms yet -- a stage called smoldering myeloma -- the doctor may tell you not to. Many people wait months or years before they start treatment.

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Are There Medications?

Yes. If you do need treatment, there are many types. You might try traditional cancer drugs like chemotherapy and corticosteroids. Or your doctor could try one of several new options:

  • Immunomodulating agents: affect your immune system, but doctors don’t know how
  • Proteasome inhibitors: stop cells from breaking down proteins
  • Monoclonal antibodies: attack cells that are a threat
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Other Treatment Options

If you’re under 65, or over 65 and otherwise healthy, your doctor may suggest a stem cell transplant. Before it, you’ll get a high dose of chemo or radiation to kill cells in your bone marrow. Then you’ll get a transplant of healthy stem cells -- the ones that create new blood. You might get your own cells. The doctor will call this an autologous transplant. Or they could come from a donor. This is known as an allogeneic transplant.

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Related Health Issues

Drugs and blood transfusions improve anemia (low red blood cell counts) and the extreme fatigue it causes. There’s a special procedure that thins your thickened blood, a problem that can result in dizziness and confusion. Another treatment, intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG), will help your body fight infections. You might also take drugs called bisphosphonates to lower your risk of bone fractures.

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Questions to Ask Your Doctor

It’s always a good idea to bring up concerns and ask questions at your office visits. Put these on your list:

  • How can I stay healthy?
  • Are there ways to ease my pain?
  • What stage is my disease in, and what does it mean for me?
  • Does my treatment have side effects?
  • Should I get a second opinion?
  • Should I join a clinical trial?
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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 10/7/2016 Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on October 07, 2016

IMAGES PROVIDED BY:

1) Evan Oto / Science Source

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SOURCES:

American Cancer Society: “Bisphosphonates for multiple myeloma,”“Can multiple myeloma be found early?” “Chemotherapy and other drugs for multiple myeloma,” “Radiation therapy for multiple myeloma,” “Signs and symptoms of multiple myeloma,” “Stem cell transplant for multiple myeloma,” “Supportive treatments for patients with multiple myeloma,” “Tests to find multiple myeloma.” “What’s new in multiple myeloma research and treatment?” “What are the risk factors for multiple myeloma?” “What is multiple myeloma?” “What should you ask your doctor about multiple myeloma?”

American Academy of Family Physicians: “Multiple Myeloma: Diagnosis & Tests,” “Multiple Myeloma: Diagnosis & Treatment,” “Multiple Myeloma: Questions to Ask Your Doctor.”

PubMed Health: “Multiple Myeloma.”

UpToDate: “Patient education: Multiple myeloma treatment (Beyond the Basics).”

Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on October 07, 2016

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.