What is Nasopharyngeal Cancer?

What is Nasopharyngeal Cancer?

Nasopharyngeal cancer is an uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells that resides in the back of the throat and behind the nose.

Symptoms of Nasopharyngeal Cancer

While the following symptoms may be signs of nasopharyngeal cancer, they can also be symptoms of many other disorders. Symptoms in bold text need immediate medical attention.

  • difficulty hearing
  • difficulty breathing
  • ringing in the ears (also called tinnitus)
  • difficulty speaking
  • a lump in the back of the throat
  • difficulty swallowing
  • headache

Diagnosing Nasopharyngeal Cancer

On physical examination, your doctor may notice enlarged lymph nodes in the neck. He may use a rhinoscope, an instrument that allows visualization of the nasal passages for further examination. From there, your doctor may order one or more of the following tests:

Ultimately a biopsy (a sample of tissue), will have to be taken to determine if the growth is cancerous. Your doctor will obtain a small amount of tissue and send it to a pathologist who will view the tissue under a microscope.

Treatments for Nasopharyngeal Cancer

If symptoms are severe, a doctor may need to surgically remove the growth before a biopsy is taken, regardless of whether the tumor is actually malignant.

Treatment and cure rates are largely dependent on the stage of the cancer when it is diagnosed.

Radiotherapy is the treatment of choice though sometimes chemotherapy may be used in conjunction with radiotherapy. The success rates are high with stage I and stage II nasopharyngeal cancer (91.7% of stage 1 patients and 96.9% of stage 11 patients remain cancer-free three years following treatment).

The majority of deaths are caused by widespread metastasis, so early diagnosis is an important factor for positive patient outcomes.

Risk Factors for Nasopharyngeal Cancer

The incidence of nasopharyngeal cancer is quite low in North America, accounting for less than 1% of malignancies. The incidence is much higher among people with Chinese or Asian ancestry. Some studies have shown a correlation with the consumption of salted fish in early childhood, so perhaps that is why the incidence of this cancer is so much higher in Asia. A possible genetic link has also been investigated. Incidence is also higher among persons who have been infected with the Epstein-barr virus, the virus that is responsible for mononucleosis and has been linked to several other types of cancer.


American Family Physician. Nasopharnageal Cancer and the Southeast Asian Patient. Accessed March 6, 2009 from http://www.aafp.org/afp/20010501/1776.html

National Cancer Institute. Nasopharygeal Cancer Treatment - for healthcare professionals (PDQ). Accessed: March 6, 2009 from http://www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/hp/nasopharyngeal-treatment-pdq

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