Executive Director, Myeloma Canada
What is myeloma?
Multiple myeloma, commonly referred to as myeloma, is the second-most common form of blood cancer. Every day, nine Canadians are diagnosed with myeloma, yet in spite of its growing prevalence, the disease remains relatively unknown.
Myeloma is associated with the abnormal behaviour and uncontrolled growth of a type of white blood cell — the plasma cell. Plasma cells are made in the bone marrow, and are an important component of the body’s immune system because they produce antibodies. In myeloma, abnormal plasma cells (also known as myeloma cells) interfere with the production of normal healthy blood cells in the bone marrow and overproduce inactive clones of abnormal antibodies, which can negatively affect different parts of the body, such as the bones and kidneys. The average age of disease onset is mid-sixties, but people in their 30s and 40s have been diagnosed as well.
Myeloma can present itself in many different ways, with vague symptoms like fatigue and pain, making it difficult to diagnose. It’s important to pay close attention to the various signs and symptoms, discuss them with your health care professional, and not have them dismissed as part of the aging process! Early diagnosis is key in reducing myeloma-related complications (bone fractures, kidney damage) and the advancement of the disease, and provides the best possibility for a better longer-term quality of life.
Common symptoms to be aware of include:
- Persistent bone pain or fractures (usually in the spine, ribs or hips)
- Frequent, recurring or persistent infections
- Weakness, fatigue and shortness of breath
What else to look for: CRAB
- Calcium elevated
- Renal insufficiency/impairment (kidney problems)
- Anemia (which causes fatigue)
- Bone damage
Being aware and in charge of your health is extremely important. Early diagnosis, active and informed participation in your health care, and exciting research developments are all contributing to encouraging prognoses for people diagnosed with myeloma.
There is still no cure for this disease, but with the tremendous advances in treatment over the past 15 years, people with myeloma are living longer, with a better quality of life. Today, a cure is closer than ever before.
Even though multiple myeloma, commonly referred to as myeloma, is the second-most common form of blood cancer, a vast majority of people have never heard of it. Results from a fall 2019 Leger survey of patients and their caregivers showed that only 18% knew what myeloma was before their diagnosis.
According to the Canadian Cancer Society, 3,300 Canadians were diagnosed with myeloma in 2018. The number of people living with the disease is rising, partially due to an increased aging population, improved tools for earlier diagnosis, and breakthroughs in research and treatment that provide patients with better and longer lives.
In 2005, when Myeloma Canada was founded, there was one approved drug in Canada to treat myeloma, the prognosis was three to five years at most, research was limited, and there was no national myeloma patient organization, very few support groups, and hardly any available information. Through research, advocacy, and uniting the Canadian myeloma community, we’ve seen unparalleled advancements in all areas. Today there are eight approved drugs, with four introduced in 2016 alone, and more combinations and options than we could have dreamt of! What makes this even more exciting is that the trend is continuing at an unprecedented rate. We’re getting closer to myeloma becoming a chronic disease, and to the day when a cure is a reality.
Thanks to ground-breaking developments and innovations in myeloma treatment (e.g., proteasome inhibitors, immunomodulatory agents, and monoclonal antibodies), life expectancy for myeloma patients has increased significantly. There’s been an explosion in clinical trials with novel therapies, as well as new immunotherapy and biotechnology treatments such as CAR T-cell therapies and T-cell engagers. More research and funding that will lead to new therapies, new combinations of therapies, and, ultimately, a cure, are needed to maintain this momentum.
In addition to breakthrough technologies, Canadians impacted by myeloma now have more support, information, and tools that empower them to make better decisions regarding their health care. All of these combine to create an encouraging outlook for patients. Over the past 15 years, Myeloma Canada has been diligent in its mission to improve the lives of Canadians affected by myeloma. We were the first in Canada to bring clinicians, researchers, industry, patients, and caregivers together in various forums to advance the cause. We advocate for access to new drug regimens, invest in and support clinical research to find a cure, foster an ever-growing network of support groups across the country, and provide the Canadian myeloma community with the information and tools they need to play an active role in their journey. (See Myeloma Canada’s award-winning My Life. My Myeloma Online Resource Centre and its Myeloma Monitor application for managing all aspects of one’s myeloma.) Last but not least, important fundraising events like our annual Multiple Myeloma March — now in 33 communities across Canada — are essential in our efforts to help find a cure.
A cure is close. Together, let’s help find it.
For more information, please visit Myeloma Canada or call, toll-free, 1-888-798-5771.
Martine Elias is Executive Director of Myeloma Canada.