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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 (blood) cell is a type of immune cell that produces antibodies to fight infection. The cause or causes of myeloma remain unknown.

Every day, 8 Canadians are diagnosed with myeloma, with an average age of diagnosis in the mid-sixties. Despite a growing prevalence, it remains relatively unknown. With the aging population and new and better treatments, the number of patients living with the disease 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 is a result of genetic material (DNA) in cells being damaged during their development. These damaged or abnormal cells do not function properly and begin to multiply uncontrollably.

In myeloma: 

  • Too many plasma cells are produced and they "crowd out" other types of cells (like red blood cells and platelets) that our body needs to be healthy
  • These abnormal plasma cells only produce one type of antibody, known as M-protein (paraprotein). Multiple myeloma is 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, myeloma cells multiply in the bone marrow 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 (ie, the bones of the spine, skull, pelvis, rib cage, long bones in arms and legs and 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 M-protein (paraprotein) in the blood and/or urine.

The Relapsing-remitting Nature of Myeloma

Myeloma is what is known as a relapsing-remitting cancer. That means it alternates between periods of:

  • Symptoms and/or complications that need to be treated
  • Stable disease that do 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.