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March is Multiple Myeloma Awareness Month, and we'd like to put some focus on this cancer that remains unknown to many people. Multiple myeloma is the second-most common blood cancer. It's a cancer of the plasma cells, which are found mainly in the bone marrow and create antibodies that allow the immune system to fight pathogens. When these cells become cancerous, they start producing irregular proteins that can have a host of side effects.
A relatively uncommon cancer, multiple myeloma has a lifetime risk of .76%, or 1 in 132. That doesn't mean it's easy to dismiss, however: it's estimated that there will be over 32,000 newly identified cases of it this year, and over 12,000 deaths.
Factors which may increase the chances of developing multiple myeloma:
Some people with multiple myeloma don't have obvious symptoms, but in at least 70% of patients common symptoms will appear, and these include back or bone pain, fatigue, and recurrent or persistent infections. Consult your doctor if you're experiencing symptoms such as:
There are a number of associated conditions resulting from the overgrowth of plasma cells.
Low Blood Counts: overgrowth of plasma cells in bone marrow can crowd out other blood cells, causing conditions like
Bone Weakness and Excessive Calcium: myeloma cells speed up the action of osteoclasts, cells that break down old bone to be replaced with new. New bone cell doesn't get replaced quickly enough, leading to weakness and fractures.
It can also cause hypercalcemia, high levels of calcium in the blood, which is marked by:
Infections: Multiple myeloma causes abnormal plasma cells to crowd out healthy ones, and the abnormal cells produce antibodies that don't aid the immune system. This makes the patient susceptible to infections. Pneumonia is particularly common.
The advancement of multiple myeloma often determines much of the treatment course. Many myelomas are smoldering, or possessing the abnormal proteins produced by a myeloma without the disease advancing. Although the disease may become active, it can remain smoldering for years even without treatment. Studies continue regarding the potential of treatments during this stage to delay activation and improve life expectancy.
Active myeloma has many potential treatments. Among them:
Supportive care is a major component of managing myeloma. As with all cancers, there is a focus on pain management, patient comfort, and maintaining good morale. With myeloma, supportive care also includes a focus on countering the disease's associated conditions, especially the bone weakness that often results. This care may include: