There are many types of treatment for multiple myeloma. Which may work best for you? It depends on a number of factors. These include where the cancer is, its stage, and how likely it is to grow and spread quickly. Factors also include whether or not you're having symptoms, your age and overall health, what side effects you’ll find acceptable, and your preferences.
Learning about your treatment options
You may have questions and concerns about your treatment options. You may also want to know how you’ll feel and function during and after treatment, as well as if you’ll have to change your normal activities.
Your healthcare provider is the best person to answer your questions. They can tell you what your treatment choices are, how well they’re expected to work, and what the risks and side effects are. Your healthcare provider may suggest a specific treatment. Or you may be offered more than one and have to decide which one you’d like to get. It can be hard to make this decision. It’s important to take the time you need to make the best decision.
Deciding on the best plan may take some time. Talk with your healthcare provider about how much time you can take to learn more about your options. You may want to get a second opinion before deciding on your treatment plan. You may also want to involve your family and friends in this process.
Types of treatment for multiple myeloma
Many types of treatment and combinations of treatment can be used for multiple myeloma. Each treatment has its own goals. Here's an overview of each type of treatment:
The goal of active surveillance is to watch the myeloma but not treat it right away. This may be done when the cancer is growing slowly and won't likely cause problems for a long time. (This is called smoldering myeloma.)
This approach is often a good option for myeloma that's not causing any symptoms. Or it might be suggested if you don’t have damage to your kidneys or bones and you have little or no anemia (low red blood cell counts).
Active surveillance means you'll see your healthcare provider every few months for checkups. These may include blood and urine tests. You may also get imaging tests, like X-rays. If the cancer starts growing more quickly, you can start active treatment.
Chemotherapy and other medicines
This is the use of drugs that kill cancer cells. Different kinds of medicines can be used to treat myeloma. The goal is to control the cancer for as long as possible.
This treatment "turns on" the immune system so it fights the cancer. Or, it uses man-made immune proteins called monoclonal antibodies to attack the cancer cells. Different types of immunotherapy can be used.
These drugs target certain genes and proteins that help myeloma cells grow and survive. They can slow the growth and spread of multiple myeloma with limited harm to healthy cells. Your cancer cells will be tested to see if they have the changes that these drugs target. If so, targeted therapy may be helpful.
The goal of this treatment is to ease symptoms like bone pain, most often if medicine treatment isn't working.
Radiation can also be used as the main treatment for a single collection of myeloma cells, called a plasmacytoma.
Stem cell transplant
The goal of a stem cell transplant is to kill as many of the cancer cells as possible to help you live longer. You’ll get high doses of chemotherapy. The chemo kills almost all of the cells in your bone marrow, including the cancer cells. But it also kills normal bone marrow cells. This can lead to life-threatening side effects. To get around this, you get replacement blood-forming stem cells after treatment.
Most often, the stem cells are taken from your own bone marrow (and frozen) before treatment. This is known as an autologous stem cell transplant. Less often, the stem cells might come from a donor, such as a close relative. This is called an allogeneic stem cell transplant. After treatment, the stem cells are put into your body in a process that's like getting a blood transfusion. Over time, these stem cells rebuild your bone marrow.
Your healthcare provider may suggest treatments that help ease your symptoms but don’t treat the cancer. These can sometimes be used along with other treatments. Or your healthcare provider may suggest supportive care if they believe that treatments are more likely to do you more harm than good.
Examples of supportive care include antibiotics to treat or help prevent infection and a blood thinner to help prevent blood clots. Talk to your healthcare provider about the goal of each treatment you get.