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What is myeloma?

Each year in the UK, approximately 5,900 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 24,000 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 much younger.

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.

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.

Unlike many cancers, myeloma does not exist as a lump or tumour. Myeloma affects where bone marrow is normally active in an adult, such as in the bones of the spine, skull, pelvis, rib cage, long bones of the arms and legs and the areas around the shoulders and hips.

What is multiple myeloma?

Myeloma and multiple myeloma are the same blood cancer. Because myeloma affects multiple places in the body where the bone marrow is normally active, it is sometimes referred to as ‘multiple’ myeloma.

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 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.

There are many different treatments for myeloma with different options available at each relapse. People with myeloma can respond very differently to treatments, so it is vital patients have options. Find out more about how we work to get patients access to the latest treatments.

Is myeloma terminal?

Although myeloma is not curable, it is not always considered terminal (something that cannot be cured and is likely to lead to someone’s death). There are a number of effective treatments for myeloma patients, which can control the cancer and prolong life. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to predict how long someone will live with myeloma, but many patients do respond to treatment and live with myeloma for a long time. The life expectancy of someone with myeloma has improved hugely and we have more treatment options available than ever before. Find out more about myeloma prognosis.

Living with an incurable cancer, it’s vital to look after your mental and emotional wellbeing. We have developed a specialist tool to help support your wellbeing. Find out more about how we can support you.

Are there different types of myeloma?

Myeloma is often described as being a very individual cancer, both in terms of the way patients experience complications and in the way they respond to treatment, which can vary greatly. Some of this variation is due to the different types and subtypes of myeloma.

Myeloma can be grouped into types based on different characteristics. The most common characteristics used are the type of paraprotein released by the myeloma cells and the genetics of the myeloma cells.

Find out more about the types of myeloma in Myeloma – An Introduction.

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Speak to one of our Myeloma Information Specialists

If you need information, emotional support, practical advice or just a listening hear, our Myeloma Information Specialists are here for you. You can call them on 0800 980 3332 (Mon – Fri, 9-5) or email them on askthenurse@myeloma.org.uk