Multiple myeloma was once considered a death sentence, but over the past 30 years, things have changed. Although multiple myeloma is still a very serious type of cancer, our ability to treat it is rapidly improving. There are still many things we don’t know about multiple myeloma, but what we do know can provide hope for the future.
What is Multiple Myeloma and How Many People Are Diagnosed Each Year?
Multiple myeloma (MM) is a type of cancer that emerges from malignant plasma. Normally found inside bone marrow, plasma plays a critical role in the human immune system. Tumors grown from plasma are known as plasmacytoma, and usually grow inside of bones. Multiple myeloma describes when a person has several of these plasma tumors, and there are approximately 30,000 new cases are diagnosed every year.
What is the average life expectancy for a person with multiple myeloma?
There are three stages of multiple myeloma, as determined by how many myeloma cells are present in your body. The median life expectancy for Stage I is 62 months (5 years, 2 months). For Stage II, life expectancy falls to 44 months (3 years, 8 months). In Stage III, multiple myeloma life expectancy is 29 months (2 years, 5 months).
It’s important to understand that this data comes from two decades of analyzing patients. The long series of modern improvements made in the time since means that a multiple myeloma prognosis made in 2016 is likely much better than the data suggests. In fact, over the past 30 years, the 5-year survival rate has nearly doubled from what it once was.
Why is multiple myeloma so deadly?
Multiple myeloma used to be considered extremely deadly; today many people live with it as little more than a chronic condition. One reason it remains deadly is because many patients can’t get optimal therapy as a consequence of having existing illnesses when diagnosed with cancer. That’s why nearly half of all first-year myeloma deaths are caused by infections or clotting events.
How long does it take for multiple myeloma to develop?
Based on finding abnormalities in the DNA of myeloma cells, researchers think it’s plausible that some cases of MM develop for more than a decade. But much more research is needed before we can truly understand how and why MM develops.
What are the warning signs and risk factors of multiple myeloma?
Risk factors for MM include obesity, family history, and radiation exposure. Men are slightly more likely to develop MM than women, African Americans are twice as likely to develop MM, and nearly all cases occur in people over the age of 65.
The most common symptoms include bone pain or weakness, low blood counts, high calcium counts, symptoms in the nervous system, infections, and kidney problems. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to diagnose MM early because there are usually no symptoms until the cancer has reached an advanced stage. When early multiple myeloma symptoms do show, they’re often confused for other diseases.
Detecting early multiple myeloma: Survivors and victims
Diagnosed at the age of 73, news journalist Tom Brokaw has long outlived the 5-year prognosis for his cancer. His MM is in remission, and he’s been able to continue to live a busy professional and personal life. This is in no small part thanks to the modern improvements in treatment. The list of notable victims of MM is lengthy, including famed English actress Susannah York, American actor Roy Scheider who notably starred in Jaws, and even the founder of Wal-Mart, Sam Walton.
How is multiple myeloma treated?
Treatments for multiple myeloma include radiation, surgery, chemotherapy, stem cell transplant, and bisphosphonates. The treatment used largely depends on the severity of your cancer and your current stage of health. Many MM patients are also able to enter clinical trials, which can offer eligible patients the most cutting-edge treatment options that exist.
Last year alone, four new drugs were approved by the FDA to treat MM. While we still don’t have a cure, drugs like these are what is helping to consistently improve the quality of life and prognosis for so many people. The future is bright; new drugs are always in development, treatment options are expanding, and MM patients are going to live longer and more comfortable lives than ever before.