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What is myeloma?

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What is myeloma?

A plasma cell is a type of white blood cell that produces proteins called antibodies, which fight infections in your body. When you have myeloma, your plasma cells produce abnormal antibodies which can't fight infection.

On top of this, too many abnormal plasma cells are produced in your bone marrow (the spongy tissue inside some of your bones where your blood cells are made). This means there isn’t enough room for normal red and white blood cells, which both play an important role in keeping you well.

Usually, the bone marrow is affected in a number of places around your body, which is why myeloma is sometimes known as ‘multiple myeloma’.

Myeloma is divided into two main groups:

  • Smouldering (or asymptomatic) myeloma: this is where there are no symptoms or tissue damage.
  • Symptomatic myeloma: this is where there are symptoms and possibly tissue damage.

Your immune system

Your immune system is a network of cells, tissues and organs which protect your body against infections by finding and killing germs. Antibodies play an important role in your immune system.

In myeloma, normal antibodies can be swamped by the production of abnormal antibodies, so your body’s defences will often be low. This means you might get infections that are more severe than usual and last longer.

Read about ways to reduce your risk of infection.

Antibodies, paraproteins and myeloma

Plasma cells normally produce antibodies, which are made of two different kinds of protein: heavy chains and light chains. An antibody is shaped like a 'Y', with two heavy chains and two light chains.

We all have antibodies. When your body is responding to infections, your plasma cells make five main types of antibody (also known as immunoglobulins). These have different heavy chains called G, A, M, D or E. You might hear them called IgG, IgA, IgM, IgD and IgE. The light chains are called either κ (kappa) or λ (lambda).

When you have myeloma, you produce abnormal antibodies instead, called paraproteins. These antibodies can’t fight infections properly.

You might hear a paraprotein also being called a monoclonal gammopathy, an M protein or an M-spike. The presence of paraprotein can be an important sign of myeloma, although in some cases, myeloma cells only produce the light chain part of the paraprotein, or more rarely, very little or no paraprotein at all.

Structure of an antibody - Myeloma.jfif

Structure of an antibody

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Blood cells

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