About MM

About multiple myeloma

What is multiple myeloma?

Multiple myeloma is a cancer of plasma cells – a type of white blood cell in the bone marrow that makes antibodies. A cancerous or malignant plasma cell is called a myeloma cell.[1][2]

Multiple myeloma can appear as a tumour, an area of bone damage, or both. Bone damage is referred to as 'lesions'. Multiple myeloma affects the places where bone marrow is active in an adult.[1][2]

What is multiple myeloma?

Multiple myeloma is a type of cancer that affects specific blood cells inside the bone. Watch this short animated video to learn more.

Understanding multiple myeloma

Explore the science of multiple myeloma with this explainer video.

Symptoms with multiple myeloma can vary, however, it’s important that when they do arise they are managed correctly.[3] You can find a list of some of the most commonly experienced symptoms below, or visit the Managing Multiple Myeloma page for further information.

  • Bone pain
  • Nerve damage
  • Fatigue
  • Increased risk of infection
  • Kidney damage

Remember, though, always talk to your doctor or nurse to get advice if you are experiencing symptoms, especially if there has been a sudden change.

Diagnosis and tests

There are a few ways to test for multiple myeloma. Your condition may have been diagnosed through one or a combination of the following:

Multiple myeloma is often discovered from a blood test. The main method to identify the condition is a type of analysis called 'protein electrophoresis'. This is done on the proteins in the blood. It can show whether there is an abnormal level of immunoglobulin (antibodies) in the blood, called M proteins. Higher than normal levels of M proteins suggest a sign of multiple myeloma, but this needs to be confirmed using bone marrow samples.

Electrophoresis can also test your urine. This is because a part of the immunoglobulin can often be found there.

An X-ray of the bone can help to identify changes in the bone and if there are cavities in the bone (called bone lesions). Other, more sensitive imaging techniques may also be used to detect any tumours outside the bone marrow, like:

  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • a computerised/computed tomography (CT) scan
  • a positron emission tomography (PET) scan

Bone marrow can be analysed by:

  • drawing a small amount of bone marrow fluid (aspiration)
  • surgically removing a small amount of tissue (biopsy)

These tests can determine the presence and extent of cancerous cells in the bone marrow. The samples can also undergo 'cytogenetic testing', which may show genetic changes that would suggest a more aggressive disease and might be associated with worse prognosis.

Classifying and staging

You may have heard myeloma referred to as having different classifications and different stages. It’s important to note these are two different things, although both help to determine the most appropriate treatment for you.

Classification refers to the type of myeloma you have. This could be:

If you have MGUS it means that there is a very low level of M-protein in your bone marrow, but it has not caused you any symptoms or damaged any of your organs. MGUS is a benign condition – it doesn’t actually mean that you have cancer, but it is an early indicator; 20% of people with MGUS will progress to active myeloma. If you have MGUS your condition will be monitored but you won’t receive treatment for it.

In rare cases, a single lesion (group of malignant myeloma cells) is seen. This is often in the bone, but without signs of bone marrow abnormalities. Various treatments are possible, but radiotherapy is often preferred.

Asymptomatic, smouldering/indolent myeloma is when either low levels of M-protein are found in your blood or there are more than 10% plasmocytes (white blood cells responsible for producing antibodies) in your bone marrow.

With this condition there is no sign of damage to the organs, no anaemia, no bone lesions, no hypercalcaemia, and adequate kidney function. In most cases, patients with asymptomatic smouldering/indolent myeloma do not require any treatment. However, it is essential that you are monitored to make sure it does not progress. Sometimes, additional tests show that you might be at an increased risk of developing active myeloma. In that case your doctor can consider starting treatment immediately if you are start showing symptoms.

Active or symptomatic myeloma means that as well as abnormal M proteins and malignant plasma cells that are present in your bone marrow, you have damage to your bones and various organs, for example the kidneys. If you have active or symptomatic myeloma, you will likely already be receiving one or more treatments that your doctor will have discussed with you.

Myeloma staging reflects the extent of the disease.[1][2]

Staging is essential to set up appropriate treatment. The most common way to stage myeloma is by using the Revised International Staging System (R-ISS). It looks at the levels of specific blood proteins and takes into account individual genetic traits to classify myeloma at Stage 1, Stage 2 or Stage 3.

Remember, though, that your haematologist should be the first person you talk to about more specific queries.

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