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.
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 exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus can affect the risk of developing nasopharyngeal cancer.
Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor.
Risk factors may include the following:
- Chinese or Asian ancestry
- Exposure 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
Possible signs of nasopharyngeal cancer include trouble breathing, speaking, or hearing. These and other symptoms may be caused by nasopharyngeal cancer. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms.
A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:
- A lump in the nose or neck
- A sore throat
- Trouble breathing or speaking
- Trouble hearing
- Pain or ringing in the ear
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 of the throat: An exam in which the doctor feels for swollen lymph nodes in the neck and checks for anything else that seems unusual.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Laboratory tests: Medical procedures that test samples of tissue, blood, urine, or other substances in the body. These tests help to diagnose disease, plan and check treatment, or monitor the disease over time.
- Biopsy: The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer.
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