Myeloma expert Dr. Rafael Fonseca explains where myeloma begins, how it develops over time, and defines key terms for understanding myeloma.
Dr. Rafael Fonseca is the interim director of Mayo Clinic Cancer Center and serves as the director for Innovation and Transformational Relationships at Mayo Clinic in Arizona. Learn more about Dr. Fonseca here.
Dr. Fonseca, to level set with our audience, can you help us understand myeloma?
I’m happy to do so. Multiple myeloma is a cancer form of the bone marrow that arises when the cells that under normal circumstances protect us by the formation of antibodies. These are called the plasma cells. They become malignant. Myeloma is the last stage of a process where a plasma cell can go through a benign tumor or benign phase, if you may, something we call the monoclonal gammopathy, which by the way is quite common. About two percent of people over the age of 50 have this abnormality. Think of it like the colon polyp, a precursor condition.
There’s an intermediate stage that we call smoldering multiple myeloma, which is just more growth, but not quite at the level that it creates problems for the individual.
Then lastly, what we just simply call multiple myeloma, and that is when the growth of those cells becomes of such magnitude that a person starts having problems or starts having symptoms related to that. These cells live predominantly inside the bones in the space we call the bone marrow. They can do a number of things that actually lead to the symptoms and to the clinical presentation. As they grow in the bone marrow, they take some of that real estate.
A person may experience fatigue and that is because they have anemia.
The myeloma cells are also very characteristic because they can erode into the structure of bones, so destruction of bone is another feature that we see in patients with myeloma. That can be either seen on X-rays or sometimes people will present with symptoms related to bone pain or discomfort with movement or weight bearing. Those are signs that we look for.
Lastly, the myeloma cells product proteins and some of the fragments of those proteins can be damaging to the kidneys. Occasionally, people will present with decreased kidney function and sometimes outright failure of the kidneys. Those are the common presentations. It is a disease that mostly affects people in their 70s. It is not something that you can detect through routine testing; it’s just indirectly we start seeing abnormalities and then we do the right testing. If anyone is hearing this, of course, they need to have a detailed discussion with their own provider.