Nasopharyngeal Cancer

The nasopharynx is the uppermost part of the throat, connecting the mouth and nose. It provides a passageway for air to pass from the nose to the throat to the lungs. The nasopharynx also includes the Eustachian tubes (also called the auditory tubes), the openings that connect the throat to the ears.

Cancer can develop when the cells that make up the nasopharynx grow out of control and form lesions or tumors there.

Nasophayngeal Cancer Symptoms

The most common sign of nasopharyngeal cancer is a lump in the neck, caused by the spread of cancer to the lymph nodes.

Other symptoms of nasopharyngeal cancer may include:

  • nasal congestion
  • pain or ringing in the ears
  • persistent sore throat
  • frequent nosebleeds

Types of Nasopharyngeal Cancer

Most nasophayngeal cancers begin in the squamous cells that line the nasopharynx.

Lymphomas can also start there, but these are extremely rare.

Certain types of salivary gland cancer can begin in the nasopharynx due to the presence of minor salivary glands in the throat. These rare tumors are typically classified as adenocarcinomas or adenoid cystic carcinomas.

Risk Factors for Nasopharyngeal Cancer

Nasopharyngeal cancer is much more common in Asia, especially southeast China, the Mediterranean, and Africa than it is in the United States.

Infection with Epstein-Barr virus, a type of herpesvirus, is one of the most common causes of nasopharyngeal cancer. A diet high in salt-cured fish may also be a risk factor.

Tobacco and alcohol use is another risk factor, but it plays less of a role in the development of nasopharyngeal cancer than it does other forms of head and neck cancer.

Nasopharyngeal Cancer Treatment

Treatment for nasoopharyngeal cancer may include radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and/or surgery. Oftentimes, these treatments are given in combination.

Radiation Therapy for Nasophayngeal Cancer

Radiation therapy is usually the primary treatment for nasopharyngeal cancer. An approach called intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) has proven particularly effective against the disease. IMRT allows for the delivery of more precise doses of radiation to the tumor while reducing the risk that healthy tissue is exposed. This approach was developed at Memorial Sloan Kettering, and is now used around the world for a variety of cancers.

Chemotherapy can increase the sensitivity of the tumor to radiation treatment. That’s why doctors usually recommend that people receive the chemotherapy drug cisplatin before and after the radiation treatments to reduce the chances that the tumor will come back. This combination of radiation plus chemotherapy is called chemoradiation. Researchers at MSK are studying other drugs that may be used in combination with radiation through our program of head and neck cancer clinical trials.

Minimally Invasive Surgery for Nasopharyngeal Cancer

People with certain rare forms of nasopharyngeal cancer may be candidates for a minimally invasive surgery in which the tumor is removed through the nose. This endoscopic approach is more commonly recommended for people whose disease has come back after initial treatment.

Endoscopic surgery for nasopharyngeal cancer is performed by MSK’s highly trained skull base surgeons.

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