STEP 6: Managing refractory, relapsed, residual or progressive disease

Patients who present with relapsed or progressive disease should be managed by a multidisciplinary team and offered timely referral to appropriate physical, practical and emotional support.

Step 6 is concerned with managing relapsed or progressive disease. The timing of relapse after initial treatment depends on many factors usually related to underlying biology of the MM, cytogenetic risks and the effectiveness of treatment.

Therapy should only be restarted when there are other signs or symptoms of disease progression.

Virtually all patients with MM will relapse after responding to initial treatment. Access to the best available therapies, including clinical trials and treatment with a multidisciplinary team, are crucial to achieving the best outcomes for relapsed disease.

Signs and symptoms will depend on if there is end-organ damage as a result of clinical relapse. Patients may be asymptomatic when there is progressive disease without end-organ damage.

Indicators of progression or relapse may include:

  • new or increased size of plasmacytomas or bone lesions
  • new or worsening end-organ damage (e.g. anaemia, hypercalcaemia, renal impairment)
  • progressive rise in paraprotein, serum free light chain or urinary Bence Jones

For specific criteria of clinical relapse and progressive disease, see the MSAG Clinical practice guideline: multiple myeloma (Quach & Prince 2019).

Managing relapsed or progressive MM is complex and should therefore involve all the appropriate specialties in a multidisciplinary team including palliative care where appropriate. From the time of diagnosis, the team should offer patients appropriate psychosocial care, supportive care, advance care planning and symptom-related interventions as part of their routine care. The approach should be personalised to meet the patient’s individual needs, values and preferences. The full complement of supportive care measures as described throughout the optimal care pathway and in Appendices A, B and C should be offered to assist patients and their families and carers to cope. These measures should be updated as the patient’s circumstances change.

Survivorship care should be considered and offered at an early stage. Many people live with MM for many years. As survival is improving in many patients, survivorship issues should be considered as part of routine care. Health professionals should therefore be ready to change and adapt treatment strategies according to disease status, prior treatment tolerance and toxicities and the patient’s quality of life, in addition to the patient’s priorities and life plans.

If there is an indication that a patient’s cancer has returned, care should be provided under the guidance of a treating specialist. Each patient should be evaluated to determine if referral to the original multidisciplinary team is necessary. Often referral back to the original multidisciplinary team will not be necessary unless there are obvious aspects of care involving different therapeutic and supportive care disciplines not otherwise accessible. The multidisciplinary team may include new members such as palliative care specialists.

There are many therapeutic regimens available to treat relapsed or progressive MM. The choice

of salvage regimen should take into account patient factors (age and frailty), disease factors (tempo of relapse, risk-group stratification), prior treatment-related factors (responsiveness and side effects to prior treatment type) and the patient’s preferences.

In managing people with relapsed or progressive MM, enrolment into a clinical trial is the first preference. If no clinical trial is available, treatment may include these options (Quach & Prince 2019):

  • using a different drug regimen that contains drugs of a different class or a different drug of the same class
  • retreatment with a previous regimen for those who achieved treatment-free remission of at least one year without significant toxicity, but response length and quality will likely not be as good as before
  • salvage ASCT in fit patients who achieved a durable response after the first ASCT and who have enough stem cells in storage
  • conventional doses of cyclophosphamide, non-myeloablative doses of melphalan, low-modest doses of corticosteroids or palliation (after all newer agents and different treatment combinations have been exhausted).

Refer to the updated MSAG clinical guideline for managing relapsed MM (Quach & Prince 2019).

The potential goals of treatment should be discussed, respecting the patient’s cultural values. Wherever possible, written information should be provided.

Advance care planning is important for all patients with a cancer diagnosis but especially those with advanced disease. Where appropriate, patients, their family or carer should be encouraged to think and talk about their healthcare values and preferences and consider developing an advance care directive to convey their preferences for future health care (Australian Government Department of Health 2021a).

These conversations should begin soon after the cancer diagnosis, and can be revisited intermittently throughout the disease course. Importantly, advance care planning is a process rather than single event.

More information

Refer to section 4.3 ‘More information’ for links to resources.

Refer patients and carers to Advance Care Planning Australia  or to the Advance Care Planning National Phone Advisory Service on 1300 208 582.

Early referral to palliative care can improve the quality of life for people with cancer and in some cases may be associated with survival benefits (Haines 2011; Temel et al. 2010; Zimmermann et al. 2014). The treatment team should emphasise the value of palliative care in improving symptom management and quality of life to patients and their carers. Refer to section 4.3 for more detailed information.

The lead clinician should ensure timely and appropriate referral to palliative care services. Referral to palliative care services should be based on the patient’s need and potential for benefit, not prognosis.

More information

Refer to the end of section 4.3 ‘Palliative care’ for links to resources.

The treatment team should support the patient to participate in research and clinical trials where available and appropriate.

For more information visit:

See validated screening tools mentioned in Principle 4 ‘Supportive care’.

A number of specific challenges and needs may arise at this time for patients:

  • assistance for dealing with emotional and psychological distress resulting from fear of death or dying, existential concerns, anticipatory grief, communicating wishes to loved ones, interpersonal problems and sexuality concerns
  • potential isolation from normal support networks, particularly for rural patients who are staying away from home for treatment
  • cognitive changes as a result of treatment and disease progression such as altered memory, attention and concentration (a patient may appoint someone to make medical, financial and legal decisions on their behalf – a substitute decision-maker – before and in case they experience cognitive decline)
  • management of physical symptoms including peripheral neuropathy, pain and fatigue
  • decline in mobility or functional status as a result of recurrent disease and treatments (referral to physiotherapy or occupational therapy may be required)
  • coping with hair loss and changes in physical appearance (refer to the Look Good, Feel Better program – see ‘Resource list’)
  • appointing a substitute decision-maker and completing an advance care directive
  • financial issues as a result of disease recurrence such as gaining early access to superannuation and insurance
  • legal issues (completing a will, care of dependent children) and making an insurance, superannuation or social security claim on the basis of terminal illness or permanent disability.

Rehabilitation may be required at any point of the care pathway, from preparing for treatment through to palliative care. Issues that may need to be dealt with include managing cancer-related fatigue, improving physical endurance, achieving independence in daily tasks, returning to work and ongoing adjustment to cancer and its consequences.

Exercise is a safe and effective intervention that improves the physical and emotional health and wellbeing of cancer patients. Exercise should be embedded as part of standard practice in cancer care and be viewed as an adjunct therapy that helps counteract the adverse effects of cancer and its treatment.

The lead clinician should ensure there is adequate discussion with patients and carers about the diagnosis and recommended treatment, including treatment intent and possible outcomes, likely adverse effects and the supportive care options available.

More information

Refer to Principle 6 ‘Communication’ for communication skills training programs and resources.