Myeloma describes a family of blood cancers. Myeloma starts in the bone marrow (the soft tissue inside the bones), where it affects the plasma cells, a type of white blood cell that plays an integral role in the immune system.
Myeloma causes the disorganized overproduction of abnormal plasma cells, which then:
- Crowd out healthy blood cells
- Cause tumors, often in the bones
- Create an array of other health issues and complications
Here are seven things you should know about this uncommon illness.
1. Myeloma Is a Rare Cancer
Myeloma is a rare disease and a relatively rare type of cancer, affecting just 1 in 4,000 people worldwide. In America, approximately 0.76 percent of people will develop myeloma in their lifetime. This year, nearly 35,000 people in the U.S. will be newly diagnosed with myeloma.
2. There Is More Than One Kind of Myeloma
Myeloma has several subtypes, with multiple myeloma being the most common myeloma type. The word “multiple” in its name is its defining characteristic — multiple myeloma causes many tumors in the body. Light chain multiple myeloma is named for the type of protein the cancer cells produce. This cancer comprises approximately 20 percent of multiple myeloma diagnoses.
In contrast, solitary plasmacytoma is a type of myeloma that results in a single plasma-cell tumor developing in just one part of the body, usually the bone. Of note, some people with this form of myeloma develop additional tumors within a few years, becoming multiple myeloma as their illness progresses. Another type, extramedullary myeloma, causes tumors in soft tissues, such as the bladder, lungs, and muscles.
3. Myeloma Affects More Men Than Women
Certain groups are at greater risk than others of being diagnosed with or dying from myeloma. For example, more men than women will comprise the nearly 35,000 diagnoses in the U.S. expected this year (19,320 men versus 15,600 women). While research into exactly why this is the case is ongoing, it is thought that a combination of environmental exposures, genetics, hormones, among other factors lead to this demographic difference.
4. Black Americans Are Significantly More Likely to Develop and Die From Myeloma
Multiple myeloma is the most common cancer diagnosed among Black people in America. It’s diagnosed twice as often among Black Americans than among any other race or ethnicity. Myeloma is also twice as deadly in Black people compared to White people who have myeloma, and Black people experience higher rates of myeloma-related complications such as anemia and kidney complications.
There are several reasons that myeloma may affect Black people more harshly than it does White Americans. In addition to biological differences, these reasons may include lower levels of awareness of myeloma (both by healthcare providers and members of Black communities alike), and socio-economic disparities that may create greater barriers to high-quality health care and treatment.
5. Myeloma Can Be Asymptomatic for Years
It’s common for myeloma not to cause any noticeable symptoms, particularly in the early stages of disease. This asymptomatic phase of myeloma is sometimes considered a precursor to multiple myeloma. But not everyone with this form, sometimes referred to as smoldering multiple myeloma, develops multiple myeloma. Often, the approach to care is a “wait and watch” approach.
6. Kidney Problems Are Common in People With Myeloma
Kidney complications are common among people with myeloma. Multiple myeloma, for instance, can affect the kidney’s filtration tools, its tubules, or the kidney tissue. All parts of the kidney are all susceptible to getting clogged, inflamed, and damaged, and kidney failure is also a risk. Myeloma kidney is a myeloma-specific condition that affects almost 50 percent of people with myeloma.
7. Myeloma Does Not Yet Have a Cure
Myeloma is unfortunately considered an incurable cancer. This year, over 12,000 people will die from myeloma. Myeloma’s five-year relative survival rate is 56 percent. This means that if you have myeloma, your chances of being alive in five years’ time is about half.
Fortunately, myeloma is both manageable and treatable. Treatment outcomes and disease prognosis can vary widely. They are influenced by several factors, such as myeloma stage, genetics, age at diagnosis, medical history, and general state of health. Myeloma is often a slow-progressing cancer for which oncologists and hematologists may recommend a wait-and-see approach, staving off harsh treatments (like chemotherapy and radiation therapy) until a person’s health really calls for it. In many cases, people with myeloma live 10 years or longer after their initial diagnosis.