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Myeloma cells are plasma blood cells that have become cancerous. They are implicated in a type of leukemia known as multiple myeloma. Plasma cells are one of many types of white blood cells that can be found in the bone marrow of a healthy person. When multiple myeloma occurs, the proliferation of abnormal numbers of cancerous plasma cells, or myeloma cells, inhibits the normal production of other types of white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets in the bone marrow. Tumors can develop and immune system problems can occur.
Medical science has not yet discovered the exact cause of multiple myeloma, but researchers believe that heredity may play a role, because this disease often runs in families. Multiple myeloma usually begins when just one myeloma cell appears in the bone marrow, and this single myeloma cell can multiply very quickly. Unlike healthy cells, which eventually grow old and die, myeloma cells often remain alive and continue reproducing. Normally, plasma cells account for one to five percent of the white blood cells present in a person's bone marrow. Plasma cells may account for ten percent or more of the white blood cells present in the bone marrow of a person with multiple myeloma.
Myeloma cells are capable of moving around the body in the bloodstream, meaning that they may spread from their bone marrow of origin to affect the rest of the body's bone marrow. Tumors can form, harming bones and soft tissues. Myeloma cells often also produce high levels of abnormal antibodies, and cause a significant decrease in the number of normal antibodies produced in the body. For this reason, multiple myeloma can hamper the body's immune system and make even minor infections far more dangerous.
Physical symptoms of multiple myeloma often include bone pain, numbness or weakness in the legs, recurrent infections, weight loss and fatigue. Multiple myeloma can cause bones to become thin and brittle, making fractures more likely. Anemia and high blood calcium can occur. Abnormal proteins and antibodies can often be found in the blood of those with multiple myeloma.
Often, multiple myeloma does not cause symptoms for a long time. Those with asymptomatic multiple myeloma may not be given treatment right away, but will be monitored lest their condition worsens. Medications such as thalidomide, bortezomib, lenalidomide, and other chemotherapy drugs may be prescribed for the treatment of multiple myeloma. These drugs treat multiple myeloma by destroying the myeloma cells.
Treatments such as stem cell transplantation, radiation therapy, and oral corticosteroids can also help treat multiple myeloma. There is no cure for multiple myeloma. Many people, however, enjoy a high quality of life for many years after diagnosis.
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