Nasopharyngeal Cancer


Nasopharyngeal cancer is a relatively rare form of cancer that strikes approximately one in every 100,000 Americans annually. The cancer develops in an area known as the nasopharynx, which is located toward the back of the throat and behind the nose. The incidence of nasopharyngeal cancer is highest in areas of Southeast Asia and Northern Africa.

Symptoms of Nasopharyngeal Cancer

It is common for patients with nasopharyngeal cancer not to develop any symptoms until the cancer is quite advanced. When symptoms do occur, patients often dismiss them as a viral or bacterial infection. Symptoms of nasopharyngeal cancer typically include:

  • Headaches
  • Persistent cold-like symptoms
  • Frequent ear infections
  • Saliva or mucus that is tinged with blood
  • The sensation of a lump in the neck or throat
  • Changes in hearing

What Are the Risk Factors for Nasopharyngeal Cancer?

Age, gender, ethnicity, a history of infections, and diet are the factors that are most closely linked to an increased risk of nasopharyngeal cancer.

  • Adults between 30 and 50 years of age are the most likely to develop this form of cancer.
  • Nasopharyngeal cancer is diagnosed in men more often than women.
  • Individuals of North African or Southeast Asian descent have a higher risk of nasopharyngeal cancer.
  • The Epstein-Barr virus has been associated with a higher rate of nasopharyngeal cancer. Epstein-Barr is a common virus that normally only produces mild cold-like symptoms.
  • Steam and smoke from cooking meats and vegetables can irritate the nasopharynx and lead to the development of cancer.
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Diagnostic Techniques for Nasopharyngeal Cancer

Carcinomas involving the nasopharynx are identified through a detailed medical history and a physical examination focused on the head, neck, and throat. Diagnostic testing and imaging may also be used to confirm or eliminate the diagnosis.

The doctor may perform an endoscopy in order to inspect the entire oral cavity and nasopharynx for abnormalities. This involves inserting a thin tube with a light attached through the mouth or nose. If any abnormalities are observed, a small sample of the tissue may be removed for closer examination under a microscope.

A preliminary diagnosis of nasopharyngeal cancer may be confirmed with the use of X-rays, MRIs, CTs, and PET scans. These imaging tests provide the doctor with a detailed view of the various structures of the neck and head and are useful in identifying tumors and staging the cancer to determine the most appropriate course of treatment.

How is Nasopharyngeal Cancer Treated?

The patient’s overall health, the stage of the cancer, and other factors play a role in determining the most appropriate treatment for nasopharyngeal cancer. Nasopharyngeal tumors tend to be very responsive to radiation, so radiation therapy, either alone or in combination with other therapies, is often a part of the treatment protocol. Advanced-stage nasopharyngeal cancer is usually treated with radiation in conjunction with rounds of chemotherapy. In rare cases, surgical removal of the tumor may be an option. Since the location makes operating on the nasopharynx difficult, surgery is often used as a last resort for tumors that do not respond to chemotherapy or radiation.