By: Shreya Gandhi, Chair, Research Information Outreach Team
This past March was Multiple Myeloma Awareness Month!
March is known for a lot of things: forward-time change, mild weather mixed with sporadic snow storms, and of course, Multiple Myeloma Awareness Month!
Multiple Myeloma is a type of cancer that originates from the myeloma cell – a type of plasma/white blood cell present in the bone marrow. This type of cancer leads to the formation of tumours in the bones, hindering the bone marrow’s ability to produce enough healthy blood cells. These individual tumours are called plasmacytomas, and when only one tumor is present, it is known as a plasmacytoma. If there are multiple tumours interspersed within the bone, or many plasmacytomas, they are referred to as a multiple myeloma, the most common type of plasma cell cancer.
Plasma cells play a crucial role in the body’s immune system by producing antibodies that detect foreign invaders and fight infection. These cells are found in the bone marrow, the spongy tissue that fills the cavities of most bones. However, sometimes they can undergo abnormal changes or excessive growth, leading to the development of multiple myeloma or a precancerous condition called monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS). While the cells in patients with MGUS are not cancerous, they have a higher overall chance of eventually becoming cancerous over time, leading to the development of multiple myeloma.
Upon a multiple myeloma diagnosis, patients often experience weakening of the bones caused by a substance produced by the myeloma cells, resulting in brittle-bone syndrome and higher levels of calcium in the blood. Higher calcium in the bloodstream can increase frequency in urination, severe constipation, and kidney problems. Other common symptoms of multiple myeloma include bone pain, weight loss, frequent infections, anemia due to fewer red blood cells, and weakness. Although some physicians can suspect a multiple myeloma diagnosis upon hearing of such symptoms, it is often detected by accident during routine blood tests or urine tests due to dangerously low blood cell counts. While it may sound scary, multiple myeloma is a lot more common than you think!
There are currently more than 34,470 people in the United States living with multiple myeloma. It is most common in older males of African American descent, and occurs slightly more in overweight or obese persons. Unfortunately, unlike many other types of cancers, there are few cases linked to risk factors that can otherwise be avoided to prevent eventual onset of disease. Fortunately, determining the causes of multiple myeloma is an active and rapidly expanding area of research.
Recent studies have found that defects in the DNA of certain oncogenes (a mutated gene that has the potential to cause cancer), such as the MYC gene, can develop early in plasma cell tumors. Mutations in the DNA of other genes, like the tumour suppressor gene p53, can develop along the course of a multiple myeloma diagnosis, and are associated with the spread of this disease to nearby organs. In about half of all patients diagnosed with a multiple myeloma, chromosomal translocations have been detected. This means that one part of a chromosome has been switched with a part of another chromosome in the myeloma cells. Therefore, there is likely a hereditary component to the disease! If multiple myeloma runs in your family, early detection is key!
Upon detection of multiple myeloma in the body, there are a variety of treatment options that are available to patients.
- Local therapies are a first-line treatment option for early-stage cancers. These treatments only target the tumour without affecting the rest of the body.
- Systemic treatments involve the administration of drugs via the bloodstream, or oral ingestion; they are commonly prescribed for more aggressive cancers since they reach cancer cells anywhere throughout the body.
Although it can be nerve-wracking to make a treatment decision, it is always best to consult with a healthcare professional and weigh the costs and benefits of each treatment option. Based on your choice of treatment, there may be a variety of different specialists on your healthcare team: an orthopedic surgeon to treat diseases of the musculoskeletal system, a radiation oncologist who treats cancers with radiation, a medical oncologist who treats cancer with chemotherapy, and/or a bone marrow transplant specialist. While it can seem overwhelming at first, your healthcare team is there to help, and as a team they will ensure they make the best possible choices in your standard of care.
Finally, stay informed! There are many great organizations and clinics across Canada, including the Canadian Cancer Society, that provide free support for families of survivors, patients, caregivers, and those that simply want to learn more. For more information, visit https://cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/cancer-types/multiple-myeloma
If you enjoyed reading this article, be sure to visit the sites listed below for additional readings on the topic of multiple myeloma and the importance of staying informed.
Multiple Myeloma Awareness Month
Signs and Symptoms of Multiple Myeloma
Shreya completed her undergraduate degree in Neurosciences at the University of Western Ontario where she explored a novel surgical technique which, when used to remove glioblastoma tumours, showed prospects of prolonging overall patient survival. She is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Toronto, researching hypoxia and tumour microenvironment of glioblastomas under the supervision of Dr. Gelareh Zadeh – Princess Margaret Cancer Center. Shreya is the recipient of the prestigious Lieutenant Governor’s Award for her work with brain tumour education among youth.
March is Multiple Myeloma Awareness Month featured image, adapted from National Foundation For Cancer Research