If you’re a patient with multiple myeloma, you’re probably aware that it’s characterized by periods of relapse and remission. It’s also likely that you know first-hand how frustrating it can be to deal with the twists and turns that come with living with the disease. However, one study observed that patient survival has increased steadily since 2000.
Multiple myeloma is a malignant plasma cell disorder — in other words, a cancer of the blood. The disease occurs in the bone marrow, the soft, spongy tissue where blood cells are made. Like many cancers, multiple myeloma begins when a healthy cell mutates. Damage to the DNA of a white blood cell transforms it into a myeloma cell.
Myeloma cells reproduce uncontrollably and begin to take up the space of healthy cells in the bone marrow, which makes it difficult for the healthy blood cells to function normally. The symptoms of multiple myeloma (including fatigue and mental fogginess, bone pain, and loss of appetite) are the result of this buildup of cancer cells in the patient’s bone marrow.
Multiple myeloma is known as a “relapsing-remitting” cancer because it alternates between relapse periods — when symptoms or complications arise, and need to be treated — and a stable state that may not require treatment, known as remission.
There is no cure for multiple myeloma, and relapses are inevitable for the majority of patients. But patients who relapse may still work with their healthcare providers. If you’ve received tests that show signs of a relapse, or “refractory” results, your doctor can explain your options related to the progression to the disease. If you’re working with your doctors, they may suggest the ultimate goal is to achieve a remission is lasting and that leads to the best possible quality of life. The length of remission periods varies dramatically between patients, and a complete and durable remission has been associated with improved survival. Some multiple myeloma patients experience this relapsing-remitting cycle multiple times, and the cancer can become more aggressive over time.
If you’ve received tests that show signs of a relapse, your doctor can explain what that means. Talk with your doctor to know more about options for dealing with your multiple myeloma, including the risks.
- Palumbo, A., & Cavallo, F. (2012). Have drug combinations supplanted stem cell transplantation in myeloma? American Society of Hematology Education Program, 2012, 335–341.