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Exposure to Radiation and the Risk for Myeloma

Posted on January 19, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Mark Levin, M.D.
Article written by
Maureen McNulty

Scientists don’t yet understand the exact causes of multiple myeloma. However, they have identified several risk factors that can increase a person’s chances of developing this condition. Radiation exposure is one of these possible risk factors.

Although sources of both natural and human-made radiation are all around us, most people are exposed only to low levels throughout their lifetime. However, some people may come into contact with high doses of radiation, which increases their risk for myeloma — as well as other types of cancer including leukemia, lymphoma, thyroid cancer, lung cancer, and breast cancer.

How Can Radiation Lead To Myeloma?

Radiation can damage the genes found in cells, and this in turn can cause cells to turn cancerous.

What Is Radiation?

Radiation consists of waves of energy. It is emitted by a source and moves outward.

Radiation can come in many forms, including heat or light. However, ionizing radiation is the type that can increase a person’s cancer risk. Ionizing radiation is high-energy waves or particles that can cause changes within molecules. When ionizing radiation interacts with DNA (the molecule that contains a cell’s genes), it can cause changes or mutations in the genes.

Radiation and Myeloma

Multiple myeloma, like other forms of cancer, can develop when gene changes occur within cells. In the case of myeloma, these changes occur within plasma cells. A plasma cell is a type of white blood cell that produces immune system proteins known as antibodies that help kill germs.

When plasma cell genes mutate due to high levels of radiation or other causes, they may start to grow and divide too quickly or evade death. This leads to tumors in the bone marrow, the soft tissue found within certain bones.

Sources of Radiation

Radiation can come from a few different types of sources. People may be exposed to radiation from medical procedures, other human-made sources, or the natural environment. Some sources of radiation may be easier to avoid than others.

Medical Radiation

Radiation is used during the diagnosis and treatment of several different types of health conditions. Many imaging tests used to get a closer look at internal organs and tissues use small amounts of radiation. These may include:

  • X-rays
  • Bone scans
  • Computed tomography (CT) scans
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scans

Radiation therapy is a common cancer treatment. Some people may undergo sessions in which a machine aims beams of radiation at a tumor. Alternatively, some cancers may be treated with internal radiation therapy, which entails delivering radioactive material into the body, near cancer cells. Radiation therapy may slightly increase one’s risk of developing multiple myeloma or another cancer. However, it can often be very effective at treating a current cancer.

Human-Made Radiation Sources

Some jobs require people to work with radiation. For example, people who administer medical imaging tests, work in a uranium mine, or are employed at a nuclear power plant are exposed to radiation. People in these occupations may have a higher risk for developing cancer.

Some people are exposed to radiation through certain consumer products, including tobacco products and construction materials. Cigarettes and other products that contain tobacco typically give off some radiation, so using these products regularly increases one’s exposure to radiation. Additionally, some materials used for constructing homes or buildings contain radon. Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive element found within the Earth. The radon found in construction materials usually have low levels of radiation, and exposure can increase a person’s risks of developing various cancers.

Nuclear weapons are among the most significant human-made sources of radiation. Many atomic bomb survivors developed different forms of cancer after these weapons were used in Japan during World War II. Additionally, many countries have tested nuclear weapons. People who work at or live near testing sites may have been exposed to radiation that could lead to an increased risk of myeloma.

Although nuclear power plants give off very low levels of radiation, an accident at one of these facilities could lead to higher levels of radiation. However, these events are very rare.

Radiation in the Natural Environment

Small amounts of radiation exist all around us. This type of radiation — called background radiation — can’t be avoided, and it does not likely account for many cancer cases.

Cosmic rays cause some radiation exposure. They come from outer space and travel through the Earth’s atmosphere into the ground. People who live at higher altitudes or work on airplanes may come into contact with cosmic rays more often.

Some radioactive substances are naturally found in the ground and in rocks. Occasionally, very small amounts of radiation may end up in food or water after coming into contact with these radioactive elements.

Radon gas is found within the Earth — and may be found at low levels in the outdoor air, as well as indoors within basements or in building construction materials.

Avoiding Radiation Exposure

Everyone is exposed to some radiation throughout their lives. However, there may be steps you can take to minimize this exposure.

Many medical imaging tests use less radiation than they used to. However, in order to reduce a person’s risk of developing cancer in the future, their doctor may suggest they use a lower radiation dose or undergo a different type of test. If you need to undergo a medical procedure that involves radiation, ask your health care team about the long-term effects, both positive and negative. Usually, the benefits are worth the potential risks.

If your job requires you to be exposed to radiation, you will likely be taught safety precautions. You also may be required to participate in a workplace monitoring program so that you can keep track of how much radiation you come into contact with. Make sure to follow any workplace guidelines to make sure you are staying safe.

It’s difficult to limit your exposure to most sources of background radiation. However, you can check for high radon levels within your home or workspace using a testing kit, available online or from home improvement stores. If you detect elevated levels of radon, you can hire a licensed professional to implement a radon reduction system. This may involve improving the building’s ventilation or insulation.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyMyelomaTeam is the social network for people with multiple myeloma and their loved ones. On MyMyelomaTeam, more than 13,700 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with myeloma.

Are you worried about health risks related to radiation? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Mark Levin, M.D. is a hematology and oncology specialist with over 37 years of experience in internal medicine. 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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