Everyone has different health conditions that are part of their family history. If you have a relative diagnosed with multiple myeloma, you might wonder whether you’re at increased risk of getting it as well.
Although scientists and doctors don’t yet have a full understanding of why some people develop multiple myeloma and others do not, research has started to paint the picture. Here’s what you need to know about your risks if someone in your family has been diagnosed with multiple myeloma.
Multiple myeloma is a type of cancer affecting the plasma cells in the body. Plasma cells are found in bone marrow and make up a key part of our immune system as a type of white blood cell.
Normally, these plasma cells help you fight off infection by making antibodies. However, genetic mutations can sometimes cause them to grow unchecked and become cancerous, intruding into nearby tissue. The abnormal plasma cells (also called myeloma cells) can form tumors, which can push out the healthy bone marrow. Myeloma cells also produce abnormal antibodies (a type of protein called monoclonal proteins, or M proteins) that can accumulate and damage the kidneys and bones.
At first, someone with multiple myeloma may experience no symptoms or only mild ones. “If my oncologist had not diagnosed me, I would not have known that I was sick — I don’t feel bad,” said one MyMyelomaTeam member.
But myeloma can lead to health issues such as:
There is a wide variety of types and stages of multiple myeloma. Some simply require watchful monitoring. Others require more complicated treatment plans, such as:
The majority of people with multiple myeloma do not have a family history of the disease. Inherited genetic variations could increase a person’s chance of developing the disease. According to the American Cancer Society, multiple myeloma is more than twice as common in African Americans than in Americans — but it’s not clear why.
The overall chance of contracting the condition is very low. It’s likely that other factors, such as environmental exposures, can also play a role.
Research suggests that people with a first-degree relative (such as a parent or sibling) are about four times as likely to develop multiple myeloma.
However, it’s difficult to tease out the differences between genetic factors and common environmental factors, such as those encountered by siblings who grew up in the same household. As one MyMyelomaTeam member said, “It may not be hereditary, but it sure is familial.”
Another member noted that they and their father were both diagnosed with multiple myeloma and had both spent several years in the army. “From what I have learned, this is not a hereditary disease, yet here we are,” they said, adding that their sister was also going to be tested.
If you have any relatives who have had myeloma, make sure to mention it to your doctor when explaining your family history. In a report in Hereditary Cancer in Clinical Practice, the authors wrote, “Although familial multiple myeloma is very rare, screening should be offered to selected families for whom the health problem is significant.”
The authors suggested annual blood and urine screening (called protein electrophoresis) for anyone with either more than one first-degree relative (parent, child, or sibling) with multiple myeloma, or one first-degree relative and at least one second-degree relative. The authors further recommended that the testing start at age 40, or at the age of the youngest relative’s diagnosis, whichever is earlier.
A cancer diagnosis in the family can be distressing, and finding support can help as you navigate the waters. By joining MyMyelomaTeam, the social network and online community for those living with multiple myeloma, you will quickly be connected to a friendly support group that has more than 16,000 members.
Does multiple myeloma seem to run in your family? What concerns do you have? Share your thoughts in a comment below or on MyMyelomaTeam. Many others will likely be able to relate and have words and encouragement to offer you.