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Can Multiple Myeloma Be Cured?

Posted on February 02, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Todd Gersten, M.D.
Article written by
Maureen McNulty

Many treatments can help kill myeloma cells and reduce myeloma symptoms. These therapies can help some people with multiple myeloma live disease-free for many years. In some cases, this cancer of the bone marrow never comes back after being treated. However, there are currently no treatments that can guarantee a cure from this disease.

Understanding Remission vs. Cure

When treating cancer, the goal is often to make all signs of disease disappear. If this happens, doctors may use terms like “remission” or “cure.” These terms are related, but they can mean very different things.

Remission From Myeloma

Remission means that treatments have successfully reduced a person’s cancer symptoms, and lab tests can’t pick up some or all of the signs of that cancer. For people with multiple myeloma, remission may mean they have higher red blood cell counts, lower calcium levels, less bone pain, fewer bone lesions, or other improved signs of disease.

There are two types of remission:

  • Partial remission — Some cancer cells die, and bone tumors grow smaller, but some signs of myeloma linger.
  • Complete remission — Blood tests and/or imaging tests cannot detect any remaining signs of myeloma.

During remission, multiple myeloma remains under control, even if some cancer signs are still present. While a person is in remission, they’ll need to have many follow-up appointments with their health care team to check whether the cancer is relapsing (coming back). Additionally, a person in remission from this blood cancer may need to continue using myeloma treatments.

Treatments can kill many myeloma cells, but some may remain. This is true even during a complete remission — a couple of surviving cancer cells may linger in the body, even if they can’t be detected by tests. Eventually, the cancerous plasma cells may begin to grow again, and the disease may relapse. Being in remission is not a guarantee that the cancer is gone. There is still some chance that myeloma will return.

What Does “Cure” Mean?

Doctors say a disease is cured when there are no remaining signs of cancer anywhere in the body. If a cancer is cured, this means it will never get worse or come back. There is no chance of a relapse. Cancer that is cured no longer requires any follow-up appointments or tests, and treatments are no longer needed.

Because tests aren’t perfect and can’t detect extremely low levels of cancer cells that have survived in the body, doctors can’t usually be sure that a cancer is completely gone. This is why most doctors will say that myeloma is in remission, rather than cured, if treatments seem to be effective and signs of cancer go away. For many people, myeloma will eventually return. For some, it never will.

Can Myeloma Be Cured?

More than 9 out of 10 people find their case of myeloma will respond to initial treatments. The disease may go into complete or partial remission at this point, and they can remain in it a couple of years before relapsing. Upon relapse, additional rounds of therapy will be required in an attempt to reach remission again. About 53 percent of people with multiple myeloma live for at least five years after being diagnosed. Some people with high-risk factors may live for less time. The majority of people diagnosed with myeloma will not be cured.

One 2018 study of more than 7,000 people with myeloma from across the globe found that 14.3 percent of the participants had a normal lifespan. Further, it noted they lived at least 20 years after their initial diagnosis and maintained a good quality of life during that time. Those in the 20-years-group had lived long enough that the international team of doctors leading the study considered them to be “cured.” The authors made another key point: Their findings were based on people with myeloma who had received treatments from the 1990s and 2000s. It’s possible, they noted, that later rates would be different due to the advent of new medications and more.

Which Treatment Options Can Lead to a Longer Survival?

Until recently, myeloma treatments were not that effective. Complete remissions were rare, and a cure was nearly unheard of. In recent decades, researchers have discovered many cancer treatments that have helped greatly extend the lifespan for people with myeloma.

These newer, more effective treatments include:

In 2020, researchers shared an update to a clinical trial that had included a group of people with myeloma who had undergone chemotherapy, followed by proteasome inhibitors and immunomodulatory drugs with an autologous stem cell transplant. They found 60 percent of the study’s participants were still living eight years after the combination approach was completed. When people with myeloma live longer, they may also have access to better treatments that don’t exist or aren’t yet approved.

Scientists are looking for new treatments for multiple myeloma that may lead to higher remission rates and a better chance of a cure. Researchers test these potential new therapies during clinical trials. People with multiple myeloma may be able to participate in clinical trials in order to receive new treatments that wouldn’t otherwise be available. Talk to your health care team if you are interested in learning more about joining a clinical trial.

Talk With Others Who Understand

On MyMyelomaTeam, the social network for people living with multiple myeloma and their loved ones, more than 14,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with myeloma.

Are you living with multiple myeloma? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on MyMyelomaTeam.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Todd Gersten, M.D. is a hematologist-oncologist at the Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute in Wellington, Florida. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Maureen McNulty studied molecular genetics and English at Ohio State University. Learn more about her here.

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