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Spring 2005 Volume 6, Issue 4:
IMF Hotline Coordinators Answer Your Questions
What is the difference between the terms "myeloma" and "multiple myeloma?" "My grandmother died of multiple myeloma and now my dad has been diagnosed with this disease. Is myeloma hereditary?"
The IMF Hotline 800-452-CURE (2873) is staffed by Nancy Baxter, Debbie Birns, and Paul Hewitt. The phone lines are open Monday through Friday, 8am to 4pm (Pacific Time). To submit your question online, please email TheIMF@myeloma.org.

What is the difference between the terms “myeloma” and “multiple myeloma?”

There is no difference between the two terms and they are used interchangeably. In the late 19th century, the term “myeloma” was used to indicate the disease, which is derived from the Greek words “myel” (meaning “marrow”) and “oma” (meaning “tumor”). Because the malignant plasma cells almost always occur in more than one location, the term multiple myeloma is often used.

My grandmother died of multiple myeloma and now my dad has been diagnosed with this disease. Is myeloma hereditary?

There is only a weak family tendency to develop myeloma. Approximately 3-5% of patients with myeloma give a history of myeloma or a related condition within the extended family. Thus far, no specific gene has been linked to this myeloma tendency. When family members get their annual check-ups, make sure that the physicians know about your family medical history. If standard laboratory blood work indicates an increase in protein, the doctor will have a note in the medical chart so that any protein increase is properly evaluated.

The small town I grew up in has had many people diagnosed with multiple myeloma. How can I go about finding out if this town has a cancer cluster?

According to the excellent fact sheet on cancer clusters from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), cancer clusters are difficult to prove. A suspected cluster is more likely to be a true cluster if it involves:

  • A large number of cases of a specific type of cancer,
  • A rare type of cancer,
  • An increased number of cases of a certain type of cancer in an age group that is not usually affected by that type of cancer.

If you suspect that your home town may, indeed, have a myeloma cancer cluster, there are a number of places to seek information and to report your concerns. Visit the NCI website at http://cancer.gov, the National Center for Environmental Health website at http://cdc.gov/nceh/clusters, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences website at www.niehs.nih.gov. The NCI’s Cancer Mortality Maps and Graphs website provides interactive maps, graphs, text, tables, and figures showing geographic patterns and time trends of cancer death rates for the time period 1950-1994 for more than forty cancers, including multiple myeloma. You may report your concerns to your local health department, which will then refer you to the state health department if necessary. Most states have central registries that collect data on cancer incidence.

My doctor mentioned something about a “monoclonal” protein. How does that relate to plasma cells, which I read is the cell affected by myeloma?

Your question goes to the heart of what myeloma is. First, it is true that myeloma is a disease of malignant plasma cells (it is sometimes called a “plasma cell neoplasm”). It is the job of healthy plasma cells to make immunoglobulins (antibodies) which move through the bloodstream to help the body get rid of harmful substances. When the plasma cells become cancerous, the body keeps producing more and more of these cells. Because people with myeloma have an abnormally large number of these identical plasma cells, they also have too much of one type of immunoglobulin. The characteristic property of myeloma cells is the production and secretion (or release) of monoclonal protein into the blood and/or urine. Monoclonal protein is also called M-protein, myeloma protein, para-protein, or protein spike (because of the way it appears on protein electrophoresis, a laboratory technique). These monoclonal proteins have lost their normal antibody function and it is the production of these monoclonal proteins that causes many of the problems for patients.

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