Multiple myeloma is a fairly uncommon cancer that affects plasma cells, a type of white blood cell in the spongy inner part of some bones (the bone marrow). The abnormal plasma cells — myeloma cells — cause several problems, by:

  • Forming bone tumors (plasmacytoma)

  • Preventing the marrow from making enough healthy blood cells, leading to dangerously low counts of red blood cells (anemia), platelets (thrombocytopenia), or white blood cells (leukopenia)

  • Weakening bones (particularly in the spine) by producing signals that speed up the normal breakdown of old bone without replacing it 

  • Producing useless antibodies that can harm the kidneys

Multiple myeloma remains a challenging disease, but treatment options have greatly increased over the past decade and survival rates are up. Research continues on promising new approaches, including genetic analysis of individual tumors and targeted therapies, for individualized care. 

Treatment and care

In addition to primary multiple myeloma treatment, we might also recommend:

  • Bisphosphonate drugs to slow the destruction of bone
  • Physical therapy to relieve bone problems, or surgery to place metal rods or plates to support bones and prevent or treat fractures (learn more about our cancer rehab)
  • Injection of donated antibodies to prevent infections
  • Blood transfusions to relieve anemia and related symptoms
  • A procedure called plasmapheresis to remove myeloma proteins that are thickening the blood and interfering with circulation

Learn more about our blood cancer treatments:

Multiple myeloma risk factors

We don’t know what causes most cases of multiple myeloma, and most cases develop in patients with no known risk factors. But risk factors that have been identified include:

  • Age: Almost everyone who is diagnosed is over 45, and most are over 65.
  • Race: African-Americans are twice as likely to get the disease as whites.
  • Medical History: You face a higher risk if you have a personal history of other plasma cell disorders, such as plasmacytoma (a single tumor rather than several) or monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS).
  • Radiation and Chemical Exposure: So far, studies have found an association — but no strong connection — between multiple myeloma, radiation or chemicals and certain occupations, such as working in agriculture, petroleum, leather, or cosmetology.

Symptoms

Multiple myeloma does not always cause symptoms. But other patients may experience:

  • Bone pain, especially in the back or ribs
  • Bones that break easily
  • Unexplained fevers
  • Frequent infections
  • Unusual bruising or bleeding
  • Trouble breathing
  • Arm or leg weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Too much calcium in the blood (hypercalcemia), which can cause:
    • Appetite loss
    • Nausea or vomiting
    • Feeling thirsty
    • Frequent urination
    • Constipation
    • Fatigue
    • Muscle weakness
    • Restlessness
    • Confusion or trouble thinking

Other conditions can cause these symptoms, too, so it’s important to see a doctor.

Diagnosis

Successful multiple myeloma treatment depends on a complete and accurate diagnosis. Each of our patients receives a thorough evaluation so we can create an individualized plan. We diagnose with:

  • History and Physical Examination: We complete a thorough examination and take a full personal and family medical history.
  • Blood and Urine Work: We may take a blood sample to test your complete blood count (CBC), blood chemistry, and other factors.
  • Biopsy: We use a hollow needle to remove a small sample of bone marrow, blood, and bone from the hipbone or breastbone. The samples are studied under a microscope and may undergo other Testing, including analysis for genetic changes.

Additional tests may include:

  • MRI: Magnetic resonance imaging uses a powerful magnetic field and radio waves to create detailed 3D images at higher contrast than CT scans — useful for clarifying other test results.
  • Skeletal Bone Survey: X-rays of all the bones are taken, to find damaged areas.
  • Bone Densitometry: A special X-ray measures bone density.

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Videos

Joe Jackson: Bone Marrow Stem Cell Transplant for Multiple Myeloma

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Joe Jackson received a stem cell transplant at MedStar Georgetown for his diagnosis of multiple myeloma. In keeping with his religious convictions not to have a blood transfusion, Jackson was able to have his transplant with our Bloodless Medicine program and a procedure called apheresis.

Multiple Myeloma: Ask Dr. David Vesole

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David Vesole, MD, PhD, is the director of the Myeloma Program at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. He is also a member of the blood and marrow transplant team. To see all of the questions Dr. Vesole answers, click on “show more” below. Clicking on the question takes you directly to his answer.