Multiple myeloma is a rare bone marrow cancer that affects about 30,000 people in the United States each year. Bone marrow is a crucial part of the immune system, which helps protect the body from germs and infections.
Multiple myeloma weakens the body’s immune response and can result in infections. If left untreated, it also can cause problems in your bones, kidneys, and blood counts. Noopur S. Raje, MD, director of the Center for Multiple Myeloma at Mass General Cancer Center, answers common questions about the condition.
Multiple myeloma starts in the bone marrow as a plasma cell, a type of white blood cell.
We don’t know what causes the cells in the bone marrow to mutate (change) into myeloma cells, but once the cells have mutated, they reproduce far more quickly than normal cells do. The root cause of the mutation may be due to factors such as race, sex, or family history. Some behavioral or environmental factors, such as occupation and exposure to certain chemicals or pesticides, also may be to blame.
Multiple myeloma affects some populations more than others, including:
Over time, multiple myeloma symptoms can also lead to complications, including:
Doctors diagnose multiple myeloma using:
Examples of imaging tests used include:
For many years, chemotherapy was the standard for multiple myeloma treatment. However, traditional chemotherapy often produced unwanted side effects, including:
Today, new treatments for the cancer have greatly reduced side effects and allow patients to live much more normally, and much longer. In years past, multiple myeloma patients had a life expectancy in the range of only 3 to 4 years.
“These last 20 years have seen a lot of advances,” says Dr. Raje. “We are using newer drugs to treat the same disease. We are using drugs in pill forms as well as more targeted approaches.”
Modern medications for multiple myeloma can include:
“These new treatments allow us to make this into a chronic disease where side effects are increasingly absent,” says Dr. Raje. “In fact, patients can continue living their lives, continue working full-time if they're on these medications.”
Though many of these exciting developments in treatment have changed lives, the ultimate goal is still to find a cure for the disease. Dr. Raje says that much of her research and practice at Mass General Cancer Center has been at the forefront of these advances.