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Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey observes Multiple Myeloma Awareness Month

March is Multiple Myeloma Awareness Month, which aims to recognize the effects of this type of cancer on patients and their families. – Photo by Martha Dominguez de Gouveia / Unsplash

To commemorate Multiple Myeloma Awareness Month, the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey (CINJ) will conduct various multiple myeloma-related trials this month.

Mansi Shah, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of blood disorders at CINJ and Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, said that myeloma is a type of cancer that affects plasma cells, a type of white blood cell, which then inhibits the body's immune system.

Multiple myeloma, she said, causes these cells to grow uncontrollably, therefore interfering with the function of normal blood cells. This leads to bleeding, bruising, anemia and an increased vulnerability to pathogens.

Furthermore, the growth of these cancerous cells can result in the accumulation of irregular proteins in blood and urine. It can also activate other cells, thereby causing bone damage, kidney damage or additional complications, Shah said.

Shah said that as of 2021, multiple myeloma annually affects approximately 35,000 new individuals in the U.S. Though incidence rates for the disease have slightly risen over time, mortality rates have declined, partly due to improvements in multiple myeloma treatment.

In New Jersey, multiple myeloma is the second most common blood cancer. This follows non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which is found in approximately 5.1 of every 100,000 individuals per year, she said.

She said that multiple myeloma and Hodgkin's and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma are blood cancers that affect the immune system, and both can result in fatigue, bone pain and infection vulnerability. Treatment plans for the illnesses are similar as well.

Though, the disease mechanisms vastly differ, specifically regarding the type of affected cells and the factors that result in cancer development.

Shah said that while multiple myeloma predominantly affects plasma cells, lymphoma affects another white blood cell type called lymphocytes. Like plasma cells affected by multiple myeloma, lymphocytes impacted by lymphoma are subject to uncontrollable growth, which may result in tumors in lymph nodes and other tissues. 

She said the biological causes behind each cancer, including genetic mutations and molecular cascades, may share similarities. Therefore, studying the diseases can pinpoint important treatment targets.

Regarding treatment, Shah said that multiple myeloma can be treated in various ways, and as such, individualized plans are important. Options include chemotherapy, stem cell transplantation and symptom management, she said. 

"With the right combination of therapies, many patients with multiple myeloma can continue to live full lives," Shah said. "While there is no cure, treatment options for multiple myeloma are advancing quickly and are improving outcomes for people with multiple myeloma."

Current research on multiple myeloma includes clinical trials that study new treatments for newly diagnosed patients or relapsed patients. In addition, researchers are evaluating the effectiveness of existing treatments, such as immunotherapy, which simulates components of an individual's immune system to fight disease, she said.

Shah said that other studies aim to identify the best treatment plans for newly diagnosed patients, which may include altering treatment timelines.

"Overall, the goal of these studies is to improve our understanding of multiple myeloma, find ways to improve survival rates, reduce therapy-related side effects and find new ways to personalize treatments," she said.

Shah said that multiple myeloma has significant effects on patients and their caregivers, including the physical and mental toll of the illness. As such, the goal of Multiple Myeloma Awareness Month is to raise awareness for this type of cancer and relevant ongoing research.

Informed patients may develop an interest in participating in clinical trials, which could improve treatment development. Educating the general public on the disease and the latest news may also improve disparities in care for multiple myeloma patients, she said.

"Efforts to better understand risk factors, incidence patterns, improve access to care and treatment and advance research into the disease are important for reducing its impact and improving outcomes for patients," Shah said.

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