Multiple myeloma, also known as myeloma, is a type of bone marrow cancer.
Bone marrow is the spongy tissue found at the centre of some bones. It produces the body's blood cells. Multiple myeloma affects the plasma cells (a type of blood cell) inside the bone marrow.
Myeloma does not usually take the form of a lump or tumour. Instead, the myeloma cells divide and expand within the bone marrow, damaging the bones and affecting the production of healthy blood cells.
Myeloma often affects many places in the body, which is why it is called multiple myeloma. Commonly affected areas include the spine, skull, pelvis and ribs.
Signs and symptoms
In the early stages, myeloma may not cause any symptoms. It's often only suspected or diagnosed after a routine blood or urine test.
However, myeloma will eventually cause a wide range of problems, including:
- a persistent dull ache or specific areas of tenderness in your bones
- weak bones that break (fracture) easily
- tiredness, weakness and shortness of breath (caused by anaemia)
- repeated infections
- less commonly, bruising and unusual bleeding – such as frequent nosebleeds, bleeding gums and heavy periods
Read more about the symptoms of multiple myeloma.
When to see your GP
See your GP if you have any of the above symptoms. While they're unlikely to be caused by cancer, it's best to get a proper diagnosis.
Your GP will examine you to check for bone tenderness, bleeding, signs of infection, and any other symptoms that suggest you may have myeloma.
They may also arrange blood and urine tests that can detect abnormal proteins produced by myeloma cells.
If myeloma is suspected, you will be referred to a consultant haematologist (a specialist in blood conditions) for further tests and treatment.
Read more about diagnosing multiple myeloma.
Who is affected?
Multiple myeloma is an uncommon type of cancer, with around 4,800 new cases diagnosed each year in the UK.
It's not known exactly what causes the condition, although it's more common in:
- people with monoclonal gammopathy of unknown significance (MGUS) – an excess number of protein molecules called immunoglobulins in your blood
- adults over 60 – most cases are diagnosed at around the age of 70, and cases affecting people under the age of 40 are rare
- black people – multiple myeloma is about twice as common in black populations compared with white and Asian populations
Read more about the causes of multiple myeloma.
How multiple myeloma is treated
There is currently no cure for multiple myeloma, but treatment can often help control it for several years.
Treatment will often involve:
- a combination of anti-myeloma medications to destroy the myeloma cells
- medicines and procedures to prevent and treat problems caused by myeloma, such as bone pain, fractures and anaemia
- anti-myeloma medicines to control the cancer when it comes back (relapses)
As part of your treatment, you may be asked if you want to take part in a clinical trial to help researchers develop better treatments for multiple myeloma.
Read more about treating multiple myeloma.
The outlook for multiple myeloma is improving all the time, but the condition still can't be completely cured. Research is ongoing to try to find new and better treatments.
As with other types of cancer, the outlook depends on things such as your age and general health. Some people may live less than a year, while others may live 20 years or more.
Overall, about 77 in every 100 people will live at least a year, 47 in every 100 will live at least five years, and 33 in every 100 will live at least 10 years.
If you've been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, you may find it useful to contact a local or national support group, such as Myeloma UK.
Support groups can offer more information and advice. They can also often put you in touch with other people in a similar situation so you can share advice and talk about your experiences.
The Myeloma UK website has more information about how they can help you and finding a local support group.