Multiple myeloma is uncommon. According to the National Cancer Institute, it affects about 21,000 people each year in the United States.
Although its exact cause is unknown, multiple myeloma can be controlled in most patients, sometimes for many years. The development of new drugs – many here at MD Anderson – has helped manage multiple myeloma in a larger number of patients and has resulted in longer average times of survival.
What is Multiple Myeloma?
Multiple myeloma is a type of blood cancer that affects the bone marrow, the body's blood-forming system. In this disease, the plasma cells (a type of white blood cell) become abnormal and multiply rapidly. This causes them to interfere with the production of normal blood cells.
The plasma cells make an abnormal protein that is sent into the blood and urine. In the blood, these proteins are called monoclonal proteins (M proteins) or paraproteins. In the urine, they are called Bence Jones proteins.
If these proteins build up in large amounts, the kidneys may have trouble processing all of the protein. This may cause the kidneys to stop working as well as they should. Multiple myeloma cells also can eat away at areas of bone, putting these bones at higher risk of fracture.
Multiple Myeloma Causes
The exact cause of multiple myeloma is not known and no avoidable risk factors have been found. However, certain things appear to make you more likely to develop multiple myeloma.
- Age: Over 65
- Gender: Men are slightly more likely to develop multiple myeloma.
- Race: African-Americans are twice as likely as white Americans to develop multiple myeloma.
- Radiation exposure
- Family history: If a parent, brother or sister has the disease, your risk is four times higher. However, this is rare.
- Working in oil-related industry: While some studies suggest this, it has not been proven
- Other plasma cell diseases: If you have had one of the following you are at higher risk:
- A precancerous condition called monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS)
- A single tumor of plasma cells (solitary plasmacytoma)
In rare cases, multiple myeloma can be passed down from one generation to the next. Genetic counseling may be right for you. Visit our genetic testing page to learn more.