What is myeloma?

Each year in the UK, approximately 5,700 people are diagnosed with myeloma. Find out more about this type of cancer and get information on how it develops.

Myeloma, also known as multiple myeloma, is a blood cancer arising from plasma cells. At any one time there are around 17,500 people living with myeloma in the UK. It accounts for 15 per cent of blood cancers, and two per cent of all cancers. Myeloma mainly affects those over the age of 65, however it has been diagnosed in people as young as 20.

What are plasma cells?

Plasma cells are a type of white blood cell made in the bone marrow. Bone marrow is the ‘spongy’ material found in the centre of the larger bones in the body and is where all blood cells are made.

Plasma cells form part of your immune system. Normal plasma cells produce antibodies, also called immunoglobulins, to help fight infection.

How does myeloma develop?

Myeloma develops when DNA is damaged during the development of a plasma cell. This abnormal cell then starts to multiply and spread within the bone marrow. The abnormal plasma cells release a large amount of a single type of antibody – known as paraprotein – which has no useful function.

Unlike many cancers, myeloma does not exist as a lump or tumour. Most of the medical problems related to myeloma are caused by the build-up of abnormal plasma cells in the bone marrow and the presence of the paraprotein in the body.

Myeloma affects multiple places in the body, which is why it is referred to sometimes as ‘multiple’ myeloma. Myeloma affects where bone marrow is normally active in an adult, such as in the bones of the spine, skull, pelvis, the rib cage, long bones of the arms and legs and the areas around the shoulders and hips.

What are the symptoms of myeloma?

The most common symptoms of myeloma include bone pain, recurring infection, kidney damage and fatigue. Read more about the symptoms and complications of myeloma.

Is myeloma treatable?

Yes. Treatment for myeloma can be very effective at controlling the disease, relieving its symptoms and complications, and prolonging life. Unfortunately, though, myeloma is currently an incurable (terminal) cancer.

Myeloma is a relapsing-remitting cancer. This means there are periods when the myeloma is causing symptoms and/or complications and needs to be treated, followed by periods of remission or plateau where the myeloma does not cause symptoms and does not require treatment. Find out more about the treatment of myeloma.

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