Questions About Cancer? 1-800-4-CANCER

Nasopharyngeal Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)

Patient Version
Last Modified: 10/08/2014

General Information About Nasopharyngeal Cancer



Nasopharyngeal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the nasopharynx.

The nasopharynx is the upper part of the pharynx (throat) behind the nose. The pharynx is a hollow tube about 5 inches long that starts behind the nose and ends at the top of the trachea (windpipe) and esophagus (the tube that goes from the throat to the stomach). Air and food pass through the pharynx on the way to the trachea or the esophagus. The nostrils lead into the nasopharynx. An opening on each side of the nasopharynx leads into an ear. Nasopharyngeal cancer most commonly starts in the squamous cells that line the nasopharynx.

Enlarge
Anatomy of the pharynx; drawing shows the nasopharynx, oropharynx, and hypopharynx. Also shown are the nasal cavity, oral cavity, esophagus, trachea, and larynx.
Anatomy of the pharynx (throat). The three parts of the pharynx are the nasopharynx, oropharynx, and hypopharynx.


Nasopharyngeal cancer is a type of head and neck cancer.

Ethnic background and being exposed to the Epstein-Barr virus can affect the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer.

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk. Risk factors for nasopharyngeal cancer include the following:

  • Having Chinese or Asian ancestry.
  • Being exposed to the Epstein-Barr virus: The Epstein-Barr virus has been associated with certain cancers, including nasopharyngeal cancer and some lymphomas.
  • Drinking large amounts of alcohol.

Signs of nasopharyngeal cancer include trouble breathing, speaking, or hearing.

These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by nasopharyngeal cancer or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • A lump in the nose or neck.
  • A sore throat.
  • Trouble breathing or speaking.
  • Nosebleeds.
  • Trouble hearing.
  • Pain or ringing in the ear.
  • Headaches.

Tests that examine the nose and throat are used to detect (find) and diagnose nasopharyngeal cancer.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history : An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as swollen lymph nodes in the neck or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.

  • Neurological exam : A series of questions and tests to check the brain, spinal cord, and nerve function. The exam checks a person’s mental status, coordination, and ability to walk normally, and how well the muscles, senses, and reflexes work. This may also be called a neuro exam or a neurologic exam.

  • Biopsy : The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer. The tissue sample is removed during one of the following procedures:
    • Nasoscopy : A procedure to look inside the nose for abnormal areas. A nasoscope is inserted through the nose. A nasoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove tissue samples, which are checked under a microscope for signs of cancer.

    • Upper endoscopy : A procedure to look at the inside of the nose, throat, esophagus, stomach, and duodenum (first part of the small intestine, near the stomach). An endoscope is inserted through the mouth and into the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum. An endoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove tissue samples. The tissue samples are checked under a microscope for signs of cancer.

  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).

  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.

  • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): A procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the body. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells do. PET scans may be used to find nasopharyngeal cancers that have spread to the bone. Sometimes a PET scan and a CT scan are done at the same time. If there is any cancer, this increases the chance that it will be found.

  • Blood chemistry studies : A procedure in which a blood sample is checked to measure the amounts of certain substances released into the blood by organs and tissues in the body. An unusual (higher or lower than normal) amount of a substance can be a sign of disease in the organ or tissue that makes it.

  • Complete blood count (CBC): A procedure in which a sample of blood is drawn and checked for the following:

  • Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) test: A blood test to check for antibodies to the Epstein-Barr virus and DNA markers of the Epstein-Barr virus. These are found in the blood of patients who have been infected with EBV.

  • Hearing test: A procedure to check whether soft and loud sounds and low- and high-pitched sounds can be heard. Each ear is checked separately.

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer (whether it affects part of the nasopharynx, involves the whole nasopharynx, or has spread to other places in the body).
  • The type of nasopharyngeal cancer.
  • The size of the tumor.
  • The patient’s age and general health.