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What is Multiple Myeloma?

In Focus look at condition Colin Powell fought in years before his death
Mimicking Multiple Myeloma
Posted at 3:57 PM, Oct 18, 2021

BALTIMORE — Former Secretary of State Colin Powell died at age 84 today, of complications from COVID-19. His family, in their statement announcing his death, said that he had been fully vaccinated.

He also had suffered from multiple myeloma - a type of cancer - for years, according to a longtime aide.

Immunocompromised people, such as people who have been diagnosed with and/or treated for cancer, are at higher risk for more severe disease and at higher risk of death if they contract COVID-19, according to the CDC.

Dr. Djordje Atanackovic, the director of Cancer Immunotherapy at the University of Maryland's Greenbaum Comprehensive Cancer Center, says that people with multiple myeloma are at an even greater risk than people with other kinds of cancer.

"That's clearly the case with these patients," he says. "That cancer cell, these are immune cells that severely compromised their immune system."

Multiple myeloma - the second most common blood cancer - starts in the plasma cell inside your blood.

"That's actually the cells that produce antibodies," says Dr. Atanackovic. "With multiple myeloma, one of these cells develops into a cancer cell and then it will start to grow. And it will overwhelm and outgrow your normal immune cells in the bone marrow, so that you're immunosuppressed."

The doctor says dying of multiple myeloma isn't like dying of other cancers. It's not the cancer metastasizing or spreading to your lungs or brain that makes it terminal.

"They will die from infections, like pneumonia," he says.

Which is why he strongly recommends that people with multiple myeloma get vaccinated - against COVID-19 and the flu.

"In the majority of these patients, they do not develop a great antibody response or immune response," Dr. Atanackovic tells WMAR-2 News. "But many of them still develop some level of immunity - and who is to say whether this level.. won't keep you from developing a disease that's more complicated and more symptomatic?"

RELATED: COVID-19 vaccine less effective for some cancer patients with weakened immune systems

If you or someone you know has multiple myeloma - there are easy ways to protect them, according to Dr. Atanackovic.

"The most important at this point, and the easiest too, I think would be for them to get the vaccine," he says.