8 Surprising Facts About Multiple Myeloma

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Sarah Lewis, PharmD on March 5, 2020
  • Contemplating her retirement - Insurance/Financial Security
    How much do you know about multiple myeloma?
    You may know that multiple myeloma is a type of blood cancer, but it’s different and rarer than lymphoma and leukemia. Myeloma has other unique characteristics—like its typical age of onset, when treatment typically starts, and advances in treatment. Here are eight surprising facts about multiple myeloma that you might not know.
  • Happy senior man
    1. Multiple myeloma is an uncommon cancer.
    The first fact about multiple myeloma is it isn’t very common. According to the American Cancer Society, just over 30,000 Americans will develop multiple myeloma cancer in the coming year. This makes it a relatively uncommon cancer. The average American adult has a 0.7% lifetime risk of getting the disease. The risk increases as you age, with the average age at diagnosis of 70 years. It is rare for it to affect people under the age of 40 years.
  • senior-man-coughing
    2. Multiple myeloma affects your immune system.
    Multiple myeloma is a form of blood cancer. Specifically, it affects a type of white blood cell called a plasma cell. Plasma cells are a vital part of your immune system. They make antibodies against foreign invaders to help your body fight off infections. When plasma cells become cancerous myeloma cells, they can’t make normal antibodies. Myeloma cells that reproduce rapidly also crowd out normal, healthy plasma cells. This results in low levels of normal white blood cells and frequent infections.
  • Older woman with broken bone
    3. Multiple myeloma can weaken your bones.
    Multiple myeloma starts in your bone marrow, where your body makes blood cells. As myeloma cells multiply out of control, they form tumors that can invade the bone tissue. This weakens the bones and makes them more likely to break and to break very easily. The term “multiple” describes the fact that most people have many tumors, or plasmacytomas. This is true in about 90% of cases. Less commonly, only one tumor is present. This is called solitary plasmacytoma instead of multiple myeloma.
  • Patient and Urine sample container
    4. Multiple myeloma can damage your kidneys.
    Myeloma cells make abnormal antibodies, called M proteins. As M proteins accumulate in the blood, they can damage your kidneys. As the damage progresses, it can lead to kidney failure. Your doctor will check your kidney function with urine and blood tests as part of diagnosing and monitoring multiple myeloma.
  • Chemo patient
    5. Doctors don’t usually treat multiple myeloma until you have symptoms.
    Unlike other forms of cancer, you usually don’t start multiple myeloma treatment until you develop symptoms. Once you need treatment, it typically consists of chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and stem cell transplant. Your doctor may also recommend supportive treatments to alleviate symptoms of the disease or its treatments. Palliative cancer care can include treatments to strengthen your bones, relieve bone pain, correct anemia, and fight infections. Some people also need therapy to remove excessive amounts of M protein from their blood.
  • senior couple bike riding
    6. Some people can go for years without having symptoms.
    People with early myeloma may not develop symptoms or need treatment for several years. This includes people in stage I myeloma and those with smoldering myeloma. In smoldering myeloma, M protein is present along with myeloma cells. However, there are no signs or symptoms or evidence of bone damage. Doctors may still recommend treatment for some people with early myeloma who are at high risk of progressing to active, symptomatic disease. Some research suggests treating these people before symptoms develop can prolong survival.
  • Doctor explaining to patient
    7. Multiple myeloma is not curable, but it is controllable in most people.
    Multiple myeloma is also different from many other cancers because it is not possible to completely get rid of it. However, it is often possible to control it and this control can last for many years. Consolidation therapy with high-dose chemotherapy and stem cell transplant can induce a remission. But the myeloma will eventually return. Doctors use maintenance therapy with drugs to extend the amount of time you spend free of myeloma.
  • Researcher using microscope
    8. There are exciting advances in multiple myeloma treatment.
    Some of the most promising advances in multiple myeloma treatment are in the area of immunotherapy, or biologic therapy. The first is the use of checkpoint inhibitors. These drugs basically turn on a switch that helps the immune system respond better to cancer cells and prevents cancer cells from evading attack. The other is the use of CAR (chimeric antigen receptor) T-cells. This process involves removing a person’s immune cells, modifying them to fight myeloma, and putting them back into the body. Clinical trials of these treatments are expanding.
8 Surprising Facts About Multiple Myeloma

About The Author

Sarah Lewis is a pharmacist and a medical writer with over 25 years of experience in various areas of pharmacy practice. Sarah holds a Bachelor of Science in Pharmacy degree from West Virginia University and a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from Massachusetts College of Pharmacy. She completed Pharmacy Practice Residency training at the University of Pittsburgh/VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. 

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  2. Can Multiple Myeloma Be Found Early? American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/multiple-myeloma/detection-diagnosis-staging/detection.html

  3. CAR T Cells: Expanding into Multiple Myeloma. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/news-events/cancer-currents-blog/2017/car-t-cell-multiple-myeloma

  4. Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors to Treat Cancer. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/treatment-types/immunotherapy/immune-checkpoint-inhibitors.html

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  7. Plasma Cell Neoplasms (Including Multiple Myeloma)—Patient Version. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/types/myeloma

  8. Plasma Cell Neoplasms (Including Multiple Myeloma) Treatment (PDQ®)–Patient Version. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/types/myeloma/patient/myeloma-treatment-pdq#section/_1

  9. Signs and Symptoms of Multiple Myeloma. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/multiple-myeloma/detection-diagnosis-staging/signs-symptoms.html

  10. Supportive Treatments for Patients With Multiple Myeloma. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/multiple-myeloma/treating/supportive.html

  11. Tests to Find Multiple Myeloma. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/multiple-myeloma/detection-diagnosis-staging/testing.html

  12. Treating Multiple Myeloma. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/multiple-myeloma/treating.html

  13. Treatment Options for Multiple Myeloma by Stage. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/multiple-myeloma/treating/by-stage.html

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Mar 5
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