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Multiple myeloma

3-minute read

What is myeloma?

Myeloma, or multiple myeloma, is a type of cancer of cells called plasma cells. When plasma cells grow abnormally and build up in the bone marrow, they are known as myeloma cells. Currently there is no cure, but treatment is available. Plasma cells are a type of white blood cell that fight infection. They are not the same as plasma, which is fluid that carries the components of blood.

What are the symptoms of myeloma?

Myeloma affects different places in the body — for example, the spine, skull, pelvis, rib cage, shoulders and hips. Common symptoms 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 the blood.

What causes myeloma?

The cause of myeloma is not known. Some people who develop myeloma have been exposed to high doses of radiation, and some have had ongoing exposure to some industrial or environmental chemicals. Others develop myeloma without 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.

How is myeloma diagnosed?

Symptoms of myeloma may be similar to many other conditions, so it can be difficult to diagnose, and requires several tests.

These may include:

How is myeloma treated?

Although there is no treatment that can cure myeloma, there are a range of treatments like chemotherapy that can slow the disease down and help ease symptoms. The way different people respond to treatment can vary greatly.

Talk to your doctor about the options. It’s important to read reliable sources of information, and that you discuss your options with family, friends and perhaps other patients. It might help to get advice from organisations such as Myeloma Australia and the Leukemia Foundation of Australia.

If you make the decision not to have treatment for the myeloma, you can still get plenty of treatment for the symptoms. It might help to see a palliative care specialist for help in managing pain and other symptoms.

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Last reviewed: June 2020

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