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What is Multiple Myeloma

What is Multiple Myeloma?

Multiple myeloma, commonly referred to as myeloma, is a cancer of the plasma cells found in the bone marrow. A plasma cell is a type of immune cell that produces antibodies to fight infection. Its cause remains unknown.

Every day, 7 Canadians are diagnosed with myeloma. Although myeloma remains relatively unknown, its prevalence is increasing. There are over 7,500 Canadians living with multiple myeloma. With the aging population (the average age of diagnosis is in the mid-60’s) and improving outcomes resulting from new and better treatments, the number of patients will continue to increase.

Although there is yet no cure, myeloma is treatable, with many patients going on to lead full lives for years after diagnosis. With increasing research and emerging treatments the overall outlook for patients is improving steadily.

Good cells gone bad

Cancer begins when cells in part of the body become abnormal and start to multiply uncontrollably. In myeloma, something is wrong with plasma cells. Genetic material (DNA) is damaged during cell development. The plasma cells become abnormal. They don't function normally. They multiply out of control.

As a result: 

  • Too many plasma cells are produced. The unusually high number of plasma cells crowds out other types of cells (like red blood cells and platelets) that our body needs to be healthy.   
  • The abnormal plasma cells only produce one type of antibody, known as paraprotein, that serves no useful function. Multiple myeloma is actually often diagnosed and monitored through the measurement of this paraprotein.   

Where "multiple myeloma" gets its name

Unlike most cancers, myeloma does not exist as a lump or a tumour.

Instead, the myeloma cells multiply in the bone marrow, which prevents it from doing its job properly and interferes with the production of good, healthy red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.

As a result, myeloma affects several places in the body where bone marrow is normally active in adults – i.e., the bones of the spine, the skull, the pelvis, the rib cage, the long bones of the arms and legs, and the areas around the shoulders and hips – which is why it's often referred to as multiple myeloma.

Most of the symptoms and complications associated with myeloma are caused by the build-up of abnormal plasma cells in the bone marrow and the presence of paraprotein in the blood and/or urine.

The relapsing-remitting nature of multiple myeloma

Multiple myeloma is what is known as a relapsing-remitting cancer. That means it alternates between:

  • periods during which myeloma causes symptoms and/or complications, and needs to be treated, and
  • periods of more stable disease during which myeloma does not require treatment (remission).

A relapse is when myeloma returns or becomes active again after a period of treatment.

Multiple Myeloma Patient Handbook
Designed to provide educational support to patients, caregivers, families, and friends, this handbook gives accurate, reliable, and clear information on myeloma. Topics cover its causes and effects, how it is diagnosed, and the treatment options available in Canada.
Download it now.