March 01, 2020

Multiple myeloma

An incurable but treatable cancer

You'd been feeling fatigued and your back was bothering you. You didn't think it was a big deal, but you decided to have your doctor check it out.

Blood testing revealed low levels of oxygen-carrying red blood cells (anemia) — and pointed to something much worse. It turns out you have multiple myeloma, a cancer of a certain type of blood cell. You don't feel that sick. How could you have cancer?

News of multiple myeloma is alarming, as it's not yet known what causes it or how to cure it. But research is ever-advancing. The percentage of those who survive multiple myeloma five years after their diagnosis has doubled since the 1970s, from 25% to over 50%. There are a variety of life-prolonging treatment options that may manage the disease and put it into remission.

Bone marrow beginnings

A spongy tissue called bone marrow fills the center of most of your bones. It produces:

  • Red blood cells, which deliver oxygen throughout the body
  • Platelets, which help form blood clots to prevent bleeding
  • White blood cells, including plasma cells, which produce protective antibodies against germs and help fight infection

With multiple myeloma, something goes wrong and your body produces cancerous plasma cells called myeloma cells. These cells divide out of control and build up in your bone marrow.

The cause of multiple myeloma isn't known, but older adults, men and African Americans are at higher risk. Multiple myeloma is the second most common blood cancer. However, it's...