Multiple Myeloma


What is it?

Myeloma is a form of cancer which affects plasma cells. Plasma cells are a type of blood cell which help fight infections. In myeloma these cells become cancerous which means their growth becomes out of control, there are too many made in an unorganised manner which cause the symptoms of myeloma. As the problem is in the blood, the myeloma cells can easily travel around the body causing symptoms in several different places.


Who gets it?

It is twice as common in Afro-Carribeans compared to Caucasians. It is most commonly diagnosed around the age of 70.


What are the symptoms?

There are a wide range of symptoms ranging from none to many. Only the most common symptoms are listed here. Long term lower back pain (over 6 weeks) or back fractures due to thin bone are the most common symptoms. Patients can feel generally unwell suffering with weakness, fatigue and repeated infections. The kidneys are commonly affected in myeloma so patients can produce lots of urine or retain fluid causing swelling of the legs.


How is it diagnosed?

Blood tests are the first step when trying to make a diagnosis. These may show anaemiaAnaemia is the reduced capacity of the blood to carry oxygen to the organs and tissues of the body. It commonly results in tiredness, breathlessness and pallor , kidney malfunction and high calcium (due to bone erosion). More specialised blood tests and urine tests may show evidence of the cancer itself. Depending on symptoms Xrays may be taken of bone to look for thinning or fractures. On other occasions X-ray pictures of the whole body (called a skeletal survey) will be taken looking for bone damage to the whole skeleton due to myeloma.

Often a bone marrow biopsy will be performed. This is important as samples can then be looked at under a microscope to help reach the diagnosis of myeloma on occasions were this is more difficult to establish.
Depending on the above results other test may be required such as a CT scan.


How is it treated?

If the patient is fit enough chemotherapy is used. This helps to prolong survival but unfortunately the chemotherapy cannot correct the underlying problem with myeloma, therefore at present there is no cure. Your Haematologist will talk this through in greater detail with you in person.

X-ray beams in the form of radiotherapy can be used to treat myeloma cells in the bone and decrease pain. Pain killer tablets are often required and medication called bisphosphonates can be used to boost the strength of bones.


Further information

Myeloma at Macmillian cancer support

Myeloma at NHS choices



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Written by: Dr T Rider

Editor: Dr J Newman

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