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Multiple myeloma

6-minute read

Key facts

  • Myeloma is a type of cancer that affects your plasma cells.
  • Myeloma cancer builds up in your bone marrow, affecting your immune system and bone health.
  • The cause of myeloma is not known — it cannot be prevented or cured.
  • Treatments include chemotherapy and stem cell transplant.
  • Additional treatments, such as radiotherapy, are often also needed.

What is myeloma?

Multiple myeloma, or myeloma, is a type of cancer that affects your plasma cells. Plasma cells are a type of white blood cell that help fight infection as part of your immune system. Plasma cells are not the same as plasma — the fluid that carries the components of blood.

Myeloma causes plasma cells to grow abnormally and build up in your bone marrow (the inside of your bones). These abnormal plasma cells are known as myeloma cells.

What are the symptoms of myeloma?

Myeloma can affect different areas in the body — for example, your spine, skull, pelvis, rib cage, shoulders, and hips.

Common symptoms of myeloma may include:

You might also feel generally weak and tired, lose weight, and have less appetite. You may be thirstier, feel nauseous or confused due to increased calcium in your blood.

What causes myeloma?

The cause of myeloma is not known. Some people who develop myeloma have been exposed to high doses of radiation. Others have had ongoing exposure to other industrial or environmental chemicals. Other people develop myeloma without any of these risk factors.

Myeloma is more common later in life. This may be the ageing process itself, or the result of a lifelong accumulation of toxic substances. The average age that myeloma is diagnosed in Australia is 70 years.

When should I see my doctor?

If you are experiencing symptoms of multiple myeloma, see a doctor. They can provide a diagnosis and suggest treatment options.

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How is myeloma diagnosed?

Symptoms of myeloma may be similar to many other conditions. This can make it difficult to diagnose. Because of this, several tests are required.

These may include:

How is myeloma treated?

There is no cure for myeloma. However, there are a range of treatments that can:

  • slow the disease down
  • help ease your symptoms

These treatments include chemotherapy, and stem cell transplant. The way different people respond to treatment can vary greatly.

Additional treatments, such as radiotherapy, are often also needed.

If you choose not to have treatment for your myeloma, you can still get treatment for your symptoms. It might help to see a palliative care specialist for help in managing your pain and other symptoms.

Can myeloma be prevented?

Because the cause of multiple myeloma is unknown, it cannot be prevented.

Living with multiple myeloma

When myeloma cells build up in the bone marrow, they cause your bones to become weaker and more brittle.

The bone marrow makes other types of blood cells that are important for your immune system. When myeloma cells build up in the bone marrow it can interfere with this, and can make you more vulnerable to infection.

Myeloma can also cause kidney damage.

After treatment, people with multiple myeloma will usually have periods of remission. This is when your disease is not getting worse, and no treatment is needed. However, you will still need to have regular check-ups with your doctor to make sure your cancer is not:

  • returning
  • getting worse

Alongside physical symptoms, living with myeloma can impact your mental health. Signs of depression include:

  • difficulty sleeping
  • loss of interest in activities
  • irritability

If you experience these symptoms, speak with your doctor and get support.

Resources and Support

To find out more about multiple myeloma you can contact the following organisations.

  • Myeloma Australia have information available on their website. You can also call their support line on 1800 693 566.
  • Visit the Leukaemia Foundation’s website for a wide range of information about blood cancer. They can also provide practical and emotional support and referral services. Or call 1800 620 420 to arrange to talk to a Blood Cancer Support Coordinator.
  • Look at Cancer Council Australia for services and support for people affected by cancer. You can call on 13 11 20.

To get support for depression and anxiety you can Call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: October 2022

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