Nasopharyngeal Cancer


Nasopharyngeal cancer occurs in the nasopharynx, the area behind the nose and above the back of the throat. This type of cancer is relatively rare in the US and is most common in Southeast Asia.


Early-stage nasopharyngeal cancer may not cause any symptoms. Possible noticeable symptoms may include:

  • Blood in the saliva
  • Bloody discharge from the nose
  • Hearing loss
  • Sore throat
  • Headaches
  • Frequent ear infections
  • Nasal congestion
  • Ringing in the ears
  • A lump in the neck caused by a swollen lymph node

Left untreated ,nasopharyngeal cancer may spread to nearby structures, such as the throat, bones and brain. The cancer may also spread to other areas of the body, such as lymph nodes in the neck, bones, lungs and liver.


Risk Factors

The following factors may increase the risk of developing nasopharyngeal cancer:

  • Being male
  • Ethnicity: individuals from China, Southeast Asia, northern African and Inuits in Alaska
  • Adults between the ages of 30 and 50
  • Having the Epstein-Barr virus
  • Family history of nasopharyngeal cancer
  • Heavy alcohol consumption and tobacco use

When to Consult a Doctor

Patients with unusual nasal congestion or persistent changes in the body should schedule an appointment with their physician.

Diagnosing Nasopharyngeal Cancer

During an initial visit, the physician will perform a physical examination by pressing on the neck to feel for swollen lymph nodes. The physician may also perform a nasal endoscopy to examine the nasopharynx. During this procedure, a flexible tube with a camera on the end is inserted through the nose or back of the throat.

A biopsy may also be performed to test a small tissue sample for cancer. If the biopsy identifies nasopharyngeal cancer, then the physician may order the following imaging tests: CT, MRI, PET or x-ray. The scans will help determine the stage of the cancer.

Treatment Options

Nasopharyngeal cancer may be treated with radiation therapy or a combination of radiation and chemotherapy.

During radiation therapy, x-rays (or protons) are aimed directly at the cancerous area to kill cancer cells. Side effects of radiation therapy include temporary skin redness, hearing loss and dry mouth. Patients who receive chemotherapy and radiation therapy to the head and neck may experience severe sores in the throat and mouth, causing difficulty eating and drinking.

Patients may receive chemotherapy before, after or at the same time as radiation therapy. When patients receive the treatments simultaneously, this is called concomitant therapy or chemoradiation. The added side effects of chemotherapy make this treatment difficult to endure.

Chemotherapy administered after radiation therapy is used to attack any remaining cancer cells in the body. Medical professionals disagree about the effectiveness of this treatment approach.

Chemotherapy administered before radiation therapy is called neoadjuvant chemotherapy. More research is necessary to determine the effectiveness of this treatment approach.

Surgery, though not commonly used to treat nasopharyngeal cancer, may be necessary to remove cancerous lymph nodes in the neck or a tumor in the nasopharynx. Removing a tumor in the nasopharynx requires making an incision in the roof of the mouth in order to access the area.