What Is Multiple Myeloma? Donald Rumsfeld, Former Secretary of Defense, Dies Aged 88

Donald Rumsfeld, the former U.S. secretary of defense, has died aged 88 due to multiple myeloma.

Keith Urbahn, a spokesman for his family, confirmed his cause of death to The New York Times.

Rumsfeld served as defense chief twice, once under President Gerald Ford and once under President George W. Bush. He presided over the U.S. approach to the Cold War in the 1970s, and was the main architect of the Iraq war.

What is multiple myeloma and what are its symptoms?

Multiple myeloma is a type of bone marrow cancer, though it may also be referred to as a cancer of plasma cells. Plasma cells are mainly found in the bone marrow, the spongy tissue found inside of bones.

Bone marrow is important because it helps produce red blood cells that help carry oxygen around the body, as well as white blood cells.

In multiple myeloma, the cancerous plasma cells can multiply and cause issues, and also produce abnormal proteins that can harm the body.

The disease's name comes from the fact that it often affects multiple parts of the body.

Symptoms of multiple myeloma include bone pain, usually in the back, ribs or hips; nausea; tiredness; weight loss; extreme thirst; and constipation.

The cause of the disease isn't known, but doctors know that it starts with one abnormal plasma cell in the bone marrow. This cell then multiplies quickly, and eventually the cancer cells can crowd out the healthy blood-forming cells.

This can cause anemia, a shortage of red blood cells, which may lead to symptoms including fatigue and weakness.

The multiplying cancer cells can also cause a shortage of white blood cells, which can lead to problems fighting infections.

As the cancer cells produce abnormal proteins, these proteins can build up and damage the kidneys. The cancer cells can also cause damage to bones and increase their risk of breaking.

The disease is more common in men than it is in women, and is associated with increasing age. It is also about twice as common in black populations as it is in white and Asian populations, according to the U.K.'s National Health Service.

Treatment for multiple myeloma might include surgery and drug therapy, including steroids and chemotherapy.

There are also immunotherapy treatments available, which work by using the body's immune system to fight the cancer.

Patients may also receive a stem cell transplant in order to get new, healthy blood-forming stem cells. Treatments may help control the disease for several years.

Regarding prevention, the American Cancer Society states: "With multiple myeloma, few cases are linked to risk factors that can be avoided."

Donald Rumsfeld
Donald Rumsfeld is pictured in Washington, D.C., in April 2011. The former defense secretary served in the 1970s and again in the 2000s. Brendan Hoffman/Getty