Multiple myeloma is a rare type of cancer that affects plasma cells. Plasma cells are a specific type of white blood cells that are formed in bone marrow.

In multiple myeloma, cancerous plasma cells make an antibody called monoclonal immunoglobulin (or monoclonal protein). This antibody can damage the cells of the bones, blood, and other organs, leading to serious health complications.

Although multiple myeloma is rare, in the United States Black people are much more likely to develop multiple myeloma than white people, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

In fact, in 2016 alone, the number of new cases of multiple myeloma in Black Americans was more than double the number of new cases in white Americans.

Below, we’ll explore what the research says about the racial imbalance of multiple myeloma, including how we can help improve the diagnosis and treatment of multiple myeloma for Black Americans.

Multiple myeloma disproportionally affects Black people more than any other racial or ethnic group, according to statistics from the NCI.

Below, you’ll find a comparison of the number of new cases (per 1,000 people) of multiple myeloma among various racial and ethnic groups:

Race and ethnicityMales (per 1,000)Females (per 1,000)
Asian/Pacific Islander5.13.2
Indian/Alaska Native9.16.1

But why does this condition affect Black people more than other groups?

Researchers in one 2020 medical literature review investigated the role of genetic differences in the risk of multiple myeloma. They found that certain genetic components may play a large role in myeloma risk.

According to researchers, there are certain high risk gene variants that may place people of African descent at a higher risk of developing multiple myeloma.

For example, researchers found that people in the highest genetic risk category (the top 10 percent) had an 80 percent increased risk of developing multiple myeloma than those in lower genetic risk categories.

In a 2018 study, researchers found that a specific set of genetic abnormalities was associated with multiple myeloma risk.

According to study researchers, people with African ancestry who had multiple myeloma were more likely to have those specific genetic abnormalities than those with the lowest African ancestry.

Other risk factors for multiple myeloma

Genetics only plays one part in the development of cancers like multiple myeloma. The following factors can also play a role in someone’s risk of developing cancer:

  • lack of access to healthcare coverage
  • lower income and education levels
  • lower occupational and work status
  • poor living conditions and exposure to environmental toxins
  • lack of physical activity and lower health status
  • certain lifestyle behaviors, such as smoking and drinking

Many of these factors — which disproportionately affect Black people and other marginalized groups in the United States — can potentially have an effect on the development of cancers like multiple myeloma.

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According to NCI statistics, Black people with multiple myeloma are almost twice as likely as white people to die from the disease.

Research from 2022 suggests that this huge disparity in death rates is most likely due to a variety of factors — many of which involve different types of healthcare barriers.

Misdiagnoses and late diagnoses

Misdiagnoses and late diagnoses for conditions like multiple myeloma are more common in populations that lack access to proper medical treatment, according to the NCI.

Not receiving an early diagnosis — or even a diagnosis at all — can lead to late-stage diagnoses that are much harder to treat effectively.

Barriers to accessing healthcare

Many people in the United States face barriers that make it difficult to access healthcare services, which can lead to fewer opportunities for prevention, diagnosis, and treatment.

Some of these barriers include:

  • lack of income or proper transportation
  • poor health education
  • no health insurance
  • no paid medical leave from work

Lack of access to novel treatments

When people with multiple myeloma don’t have access to the most effective treatment options, it can significantly lower their chances of remission.

Researchers in one large 2017 research review found that the use of novel therapies for multiple myeloma, like certain medications and stem cell transplants, were lowest in Black people after diagnosis.

Underrepresentation in clinical trials

According to medical literature, while Black people encompass 14 percent of the U.S. population, they only represent a small percentage of clinical trial participants — as low as 4.5 percent of participants in multiple myeloma trials.

A lack of representation in these trials can negatively affect the treatment outcomes of Black people with multiple myeloma.

Standard of care affects your outcome

Research suggests that providing equal access to treatment can not only equalize multiple myeloma survival rates between Black and white people but actually improve survival rates for Black people to a significant degree.

In a 2019 study, researchers explored the impact of equalizing treatment for more than 15,000 Black and white people with multiple myeloma.

When equal treatment was provided to both groups, younger Black people (below age 65) had equal or higher survival rates than any of their white counterparts.

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According to the American Cancer Society, a lack of symptoms in the early stage of the disease can make it more difficult to diagnose multiple myeloma early.

People who do have symptoms may notice:

  • bone pain, often in the back, hips, or skull
  • weakness in the bones, sometimes resulting in fractures
  • low red blood cell count, which can cause anemia
  • low white blood cell count, which can cause increased infections
  • low blood platelets, which can cause problems with blood clotting
  • high blood calcium levels and hypercalcemia symptoms
  • severe pain in the back from pressure on the spinal cord
  • numbness and muscle weakness, especially in the legs
  • pins and needles in the fingers, toes, or extremities
  • confusion, dizziness, or stroke-like symptoms, from thick blood
  • symptoms of kidney damage, like weakness, itching, or swollen legs

Recognizing symptoms and receiving treatment early is important

Because many of the symptoms of multiple myeloma can also be associated with other conditions, getting a diagnosis can be difficult. However, just like any other type of cancer, early diagnosis and treatment are important.

In fact, the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation shares that early treatment via a stem cell transplant may give people the best chance of staying in remission for the longest time.

And researchers in a 2021 research review suggest that early diagnosis and treatment for multiple myeloma — especially the precancerous smoldering multiple myeloma — is essential in helping both prevent myeloma and improve remission rates.

If you think you may have symptoms, ask a doctor for the following diagnostic tests

If you’re concerned you may have symptoms of multiple myeloma, ask a doctor or other healthcare professional for a closer look with the following diagnostic tests:

  • Labs. Blood tests, like the serum protein electrophoresis (SPEP) test, can check for antibodies that are commonly associated with multiple myeloma. Standard blood work, such as a complete blood count (CBC), can also be used to check for changes in your blood, bones, and other organs that multiple myeloma can cause.
  • Imaging. CT scans, MRIs, and X-rays can all check for changes in your bones that might be the result of multiple myeloma. Imaging tests also help doctors identify any changes to your organs that can happen because of multiple myeloma.
  • Biopsy. Biopsies play a huge role in diagnosing multiple myeloma — especially a bone marrow biopsy. By taking a bone marrow biopsy, a doctor can check for myeloma cells in your bone marrow. They can also analyze those cells to help determine your outlook if cancer is present.

Multiple myeloma resources

Whether you’ve already received a diagnosis of multiple myeloma or are looking for resources for a loved one with the condition, here are some resources to get you started:

  • The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Clinical Trial Support Center can help you find multiple myeloma clinical trials.
  • The Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation has a support group finder to help you find support groups in your area.
  • The American Cancer Society has a resource finder that can help you search for treatment-related resources in your area.
  • The International Myeloma Foundation has a full page of online resources for finding financial, legal, and other types of support.
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Consider participating in clinical trials

If you’ve received a multiple myeloma diagnosis and are interested in exploring your treatment options, consider participating in clinical trials.

More Black representation in clinical trials that explore genetic components or new treatments can help improve the early diagnosis and treatment of multiple myeloma for Black Americans.

What can I do to lower my risk of developing multiple myeloma?

According to the American Cancer Society, preventing multiple myeloma can be difficult because most of the risk comes from things that are hard to avoid or change, like genetics. But interventions like genetic screening can help you better understand your individual risk.

Where can I access free or low cost screenings for multiple myeloma?

There are no screening tests for multiple myeloma, but routine visits with a primary care doctor may detect early signs before the disease causes symptoms.

If you or your doctor suspect that you have multiple myeloma, blood work and imaging are the next steps toward diagnosis.

What are the best treatment options for multiple myeloma?

Most cases of multiple myeloma are treated with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination of these approaches.

In some cases, your doctor might recommend a stem cell transplant, which may help you stay in remission from multiple myeloma for longer.