Nasopharyngeal Cancer

Last Updated September 2020 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Beth Oller, MD

What is nasopharyngeal cancer?

Nasopharyngeal cancer is a malignant tumor that develops in the nasopharynx. The nasopharynx is the area where the back part of your nose opens into your upper throat. This is also where tubes from your ears open into your throat.

Symptoms of nasopharyngeal cancer

If you have nasopharyngeal cancer, you might easily mistake the symptoms for other conditions. You might first notice a lump in your neck. You might have trouble hearing in one ear. You might have nosebleeds, headaches, blurred vision, or ringing in one or both ears. You might notice a change in the way one side of your face feels. You may have trouble breathing or speaking.

What causes nasopharyngeal cancer?

No one knows for sure what causes nasopharyngeal cancer. Nasopharyngeal cancer is rare. It most often affects people who are between 30 and 50 years of age. Men are more likely to have nasopharyngeal cancer than women.

How is nasopharyngeal cancer diagnosed?

Your doctor might use endoscopy to try to see the cancer. For this exam, a thin tube with a very small camera on the end is put into your nose. This lets your doctor get a closer look at the cancerous tumor.

During endoscopy, your doctor might take a small piece from the tumor. This is called a biopsy sample. He or she will then send a piece of the tumor to a lab where it is looked at under a microscope.

Your doctor might also send you to have an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). This MRI takes a special “picture” of your nasopharynx so that your doctor can see the size of the tumor.

Can nasopharyngeal cancer be prevented or avoided?

Eating salt-preserved foods (like fish, eggs, leafy vegetables, and roots) during early childhood may increase the risk of getting this form of cancer. The Epstein-Barr virus may also make a person more likely to get nasopharyngeal cancer. This is the same virus that causes infectious mononucleosis (also called “mono”). You may also have a higher risk of getting nasopharyngeal cancer if someone else in your family has had it.

You are most likely to get this cancer if you or your ancestors come from southern China, particularly Canton (now called Guangzhou) or Hong Kong. You are also more likely to get this cancer if you are from a country in Southeast Asia, such as Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, or Thailand.

Nasopharyngeal cancer treatment

Radiation is quite successful in treating cancer in the nasopharynx. You might also need to have chemotherapy (medicines used to treat cancer). Radiation and chemotherapy can make you feel tired and sick to your stomach. You might also have headaches for a while after radiation treatment.

Living with nasopharyngeal cancer

Many people with nasopharyngeal cancer can live normal lives. You are more likely to be cured if you find it early and the cancer has not spread to other parts of the body.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How long will my treatment last?
  • What is the best treatment for my nasopharyngeal cancer?
  • What happens if I get a cold or the flu during my treatment?
  • Some of my family comes from southeast Asia. Am I more likely to get nasopharyngeal cancer?
  • Should I talk with my family members about their risk for nasopharyngeal cancer?
  • I currently smoke. Could that have had something to do with my nasopharyngeal cancer?