Multiple myeloma is a cancer of plasma cells, which are located within the bone marrow. Plasma cells are a part of the immune system, which fights infections. In multiple myeloma, abnormal plasma cells (myelomas) interfere with the growth of other blood cells, including red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. These abnormal plasma cells make it harder for the body to fight infections. In addition, as the plasma cells grow, they crowd out normal cells, leading to complications such as anemia and hemostatic abnormalities.
Multiple myeloma is not common, but it is serious. About 13,700 Americans learn each year that they have multiple myeloma. The disease accounts for about 1% of all cancers among Caucasians and 2% of those among African-Americans. Worldwide, about four people in every 100,000 develop the disease. The incidence seems to be increasing; however, this increase could be due to the fact that new techniques allow doctors to diagnose the disease more readily. Multiple myeloma is a disease of older people. Most people diagnosed with multiple myeloma are at least 60 years old.
The survival rate for multiple myeloma depends on the stage of disease at the time of diagnosis. The earlier the disease is caught, the better the prognosis. Patients receiving conventional chemotherapy typically survive from months to years, with an average survival rate of 2.5 to 3 years. Patients who receive bone marrow transplants have a better chance of prolonged survival.
Patients with myeloma often die of infections. Myeloma tumors weaken the body’s defenses against infection. As a result, respiratory and urinary tract infections are more frequent in patients with the disease. Patients with myeloma are 15 times more likely to get an infection than people in normal health.
Because there is usually no cure for multiple myeloma, treatment aims to control symptoms and complications, relieve pain, and stabilize bodily functions.
While doctors do not know what causes multiple myeloma, genetic abnormalities and exposure to environmental toxins may play a role. In some patients with myeloma, genetic abnormalities may contribute to tumor growth. Relatives of people with myeloma are at increased risk, as are people who work around insecticides and other chemicals.
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