Researchers still aren’t sure what causes multiple myeloma. But several factors can contribute to your risk, such as genetics, ancestry, and family history.

Multiple myeloma is a cancer of the plasma cells that causes a buildup of a harmful chemical in the body. As it progresses, the cancer can cause symptoms like low blood counts, kidney issues, more frequent infections, and bone and calcium problems.

Though researchers are still not certain what causes multiple myeloma, they do know genetics can play a role in it. Factors such as sex assigned at birth and family history can all affect your chances of developing the condition.

Racial and ethnic background are considered contributing factors in the context that healthcare inequities may likely be the cause.

There are a lot of questions surrounding genetics and multiple myeloma. Here’s what the latest research has to say about some of the most frequently asked questions about the cancer.

Researchers are looking into the genetic links of multiple myeloma. If they can understand how it affects people and the underlying cause, it will help them be better able to predict and treat the condition.

According to the Patient Empowerment Network, genetic mutations play a role in the development of multiple myeloma.

Chromosomal translocations (where parts of chromosomes are swapped) account for about 40% of all multiple myeloma cases. In about 50% of cases, chromosome 13 is missing. Plus, there are at least 12 different genetic subtypes of myeloma.

Research from 2014 states that cases of multiple myeloma can be divided into two broad groups based on the changes in the chromosomes. The two groups are:

  • Hyperdiploid group: This is characterized by trisomies (where there’s an extra chromosome).
  • Nonhyperdiploid group: This is characterized by translocations (where parts of the chromosomes are swapped with other parts).

The researchers also noted that genetic events or changes contribute to the development of the cancer.

In a 2020 study, researchers looked at various biomarkers for multiple myeloma. They found that when participants received a diagnosis of double-hit or GEP high risk status, participants were less likely to respond to traditional therapies for multiple myeloma.

They noted that future studies should continue to look at biomarkers to determine the best course of treatment based on the cancer’s genetic makeup.

In some cases, multiple myeloma can run in families. But according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), this is not necessarily true for all cases. It’s possible you or a loved one could develop multiple myeloma even if no one else in your family has the condition.

About 5–7% of cases occur in people with a family history of multiple myeloma.

Research from 2013 indicated that, at the time, records showed over 100 families with multiple family members having either multiple myeloma or other plasma cell dyscrasias. According to the researchers, the number of confirmed cases of families developing the condition has led many to believe it can run in families.

If a close family member has developed multiple myeloma, it’s best to let your doctor know. If your doctor is aware of the potential risk, they can look for early signs of the cancer and potentially start treatments earlier.

There are several potential risk factors for developing multiple myeloma.

Research suggests that multiple myeloma is more than twice as likely to occur in Black people compared with white people. One study from 2020 notes this is likely the result of a multifactorial cause, which may include a genetic variation and healthcare inequities.

People assigned male at birth are also slightly more likely than people assigned female at birth to develop the cancer.

People living with another cancer or disease risk may also be more likely to develop multiple myeloma. For example, a family history of BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations may put you at higher risk of developing the cancer.

According to the ACS, other risk factors include obesity or the presence of other plasma disorders.

Though the exact cause of multiple myeloma remains unknown, researchers have identified potential triggers to be aware of.

According to the International Myeloma Foundation, certain toxic chemicals and viruses may trigger the cancer. Some of the identified toxins include:

  • engine exhaust
  • benzene
  • fuels
  • dioxins
  • cleaning products
  • agricultural chemicals
  • solvents

Viral triggers can include:

  • hepatitis B or C
  • HIV
  • AIDS
  • simian virus 40 (SV40), a contaminant in an early version of the polio vaccine
  • several herpes viruses

Multiple myeloma can advance to end stage. How well you respond to treatment can vary based on factors like age and overall health.

According to the ACS, the 5-year survival rate for multiple myeloma is:

  • 79% for localized stage (only one tumor is growing in or outside the bone and has not spread)
  • not applicable for regional stage (cancer has spread to the lymph nodes)
  • 57% for distant stage (multiple tumors have spread to other areas of the body)

In other words, 79% of people who’ve received a diagnosis of localized multiple myeloma are still alive after 5 years. Your chances of survival depend on:

  • when the cancer was caught
  • your overall health
  • your response to treatment
  • your age

Treatment for multiple myeloma can vary based on the type of cancer you have. You may need to talk with your doctor about the best treatment options for you or your loved one. Treatment options can include:

  • radiation
  • CAR T-cell therapy
  • medications (chemo)
  • transfusions
  • stem cell transplant

Multiple myeloma has a genetic link that can make it more likely to occur if your family has a history of the condition. People assigned male at birth are likely to have a higher rate of receiving a diagnosis of multiple myeloma.

Research has also shown that multiple myeloma has an earlier onset, a higher prevalence, and a higher mortality rate in Black people compared with white people. This is likely due to a combination of factors, one of which may be healthcare inequities.

Exposure to toxins or viruses, such as HIV, can trigger the cancer.

Your outlook depends on the stage of the cancer when treatment begins, your overall health, and your response to treatment.

If you have questions about multiple myeloma or believe you or your loved one is at risk of the condition, talk with a healthcare professional.