Donald Rumsfeld attends a music event

Donald Rumsfeld, former United States secretary of defense, died Wednesday at age 88 (via New York Times). Rumsfeld worked for Presidents Gerald R. Ford and George W. Bush during his career. He was also involved in the Cold War in the 1970s, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and several incidences of modern-day terrorism. He was the youngest person ever to serve as secretary of defense (via CNN).

"It is with deep sadness that we share the news of the passing of Donald Rumsfeld, an American statesman and devoted husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather. At 88, he was surrounded by family in his beloved Taos, New Mexico," Rumsfeld’s family said in a statement. "History may remember him for his extraordinary accomplishments over six decades of public service, but for those who knew him best and whose lives were forever changed as a result, we will remember his unwavering love for his wife Joyce, his family and friends, and the integrity he brought to a life dedicated to country."

Rumsfeld died from multiple myeloma

Donald Rumsfeld speaks at an event

A spokesperson for the Rumsfeld family told the New York Times that Rumsfeld passed away due to multiple myeloma. Also called Kahler’s disease, this is a type of blood cancer. The cancer begins in the plasma cells, which are a type of white blood cell that works in the immune system to fight against bacteria, germs, and diseases (via WebMD).

Multiple myeloma causes these blood cells to multiply incorrectly. Cancerous cells accumulate in the bones and bone marrow and crowd out healthy blood cells, which causes organ damage. They also allow a protein called immunoglobulin to build up in the body in place of helpful antibodies. The cancerous plasma cells cause other cells to attack and eat away at bones, creating damage and weak areas. The weak areas of the bones are called lytic lesions.

Multiple myeloma is a form of monoclonal gammopathy, which is a condition where plasma cells make too many copies of a single antibody.

Scientists aren’t sure what causes multiple myeloma

A doctor gives a cancer diagnosis

No one knows exactly what causes this disease, but some potential causes and risk factors have been determined. Certain changes in DNA, or mutations, may increase the risk of someone developing this disease. According to the American Cancer Society, "Myeloma cells also show abnormalities in their chromosomes…In about half of all people with myeloma, part of one chromosome has switched with part of another chromosome in the myeloma cells."

Abnormalities in someone’s bone marrow may also put them at risk of developing multiple myeloma. Additionally, some environmental factors, like chemical or radiation exposure, may also be a factor.

There are several risk factors for multiple myeloma. People who are male, over the age of 50, African-American, and/or overweight are all at a higher risk of developing the disease. Those with a family history of the disease may be more likely to get it later in life, although genetics only account for a small portion of cases.

Symptoms can come in many forms

A woman has hip pain from cancer

Multiple myeloma can present symptoms at varying degrees. Symptoms may not be noticeable at first. But because this type of cancer does so much damage to the bones and organs, symptoms will become more severe as the disease progresses. The four major types of symptoms can be referred to by the acronym CRAB. This stands for calcium, renal failure, anemia, and bone damage (via Healthline).

Multiple myeloma can cause high levels of calcium in the blood because bones may leak it into the body due to the high concentration of cancerous plasma cells. High amounts of calcium in the bloodstream can lead to extreme thirst, nausea, vomiting, upset stomach, and loss of appetite. Renal failure, or kidney failure, can happen when high levels of protein enter the body. Anemia can be caused when there are not enough healthy red blood cells in the body, which happens in someone with multiple myeloma. Anemia can cause fatigue, dizziness, and irritability. Bone damage can cause mild to severe pain.

Other symptoms of multiple myeloma include weakness, weight loss, confusion, issues with urination, nausea, vomiting, infections, and/or vision problems.

Multiple myeloma is a rare type of cancer

A doctor examines an X-ray looking for cancer

According to the National Cancer Institute, multiple myeloma made up about 1.8% of all new cancer cases in 2021. This makes it a relatively rare type of cancer.

This disease is sometimes diagnosed before symptoms are present and sometimes diagnosed due to concerning symptoms. There are four main tests that are commonly used to diagnose multiple myeloma: blood tests, urine tests, bone marrow biopsies, and imaging studies (via Cleveland Clinic). Blood tests can be used to find the level of proteins and calcium in the blood. A doctor can often see how far the cancer has progressed with this test.

Urine tests can be used to detect certain proteins that are often present in people with multiple myeloma. Bone marrow biopsies can look for unusual plasma cells, which can give a good indication of whether or not someone has cancer. Finally, imaging studies like CT scans, PET scans, MRIs, and X-rays can also give doctors a good look at potential bone and organ damage.

There is not a known cure for multiple myeloma

A doctor shows a patient a CT scan

Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for this type of cancer. Most treatments are designed to reduce pain in patients and slow the progression of the disease. The intensity of treatment will depend on the severity of the disease. Treatment may not be necessary at all if a patient is not experiencing symptoms.

If a patient is experiencing symptoms, there are many treatments that can help. These include chemotherapy, targeted drugs, stem cell transplants, radiation therapy, surgery, and clinical trial studies (via Everyday Health). Two immunotherapy options for this disease that are approved by the Food and Drug Administration include Daratumumab (Darzalex) and Elotuzumab (Empliciti).

Some alternative medicine practices that may relieve symptoms include acupuncture, aromatherapy, massage, meditation, and relaxation methods. These offer a potential solution to pain management that is a natural option for your body. However, it is important to discuss with your doctor before trying any alternative medicine options.