Summary

Key Points

  • Nasopharyngeal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the nasopharynx.
  • Ethnic background and being exposed to the Epstein-Barr virus can affect the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer.
  • Signs of nasopharyngeal cancer include trouble breathing, speaking, or hearing.
  • Tests that examine the nose and throat are used to detect (find) and diagnose nasopharyngeal cancer.
  • Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

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.

Nasopharyngeal cancer is a type of head and neck cancer.

Risk Factors

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.

Screening and Detection

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.

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

  • The number of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
  • The amount of hemoglobin (the protein that carries oxygen) in the red blood cells.
  • The portion of the blood sample made up of red blood cells.

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.

Signs and Symptoms

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.

Treatment Options

There are different types of treatment for patients with nasopharyngeal cancer.

Different types of treatment are available for patients with nasopharyngeal cancer. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Three types of standard treatment are used:

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

External radiation therapy to the thyroid or the pituitary gland may change the way the thyroid gland works. The doctor may test the thyroid gland before and after therapy to make sure it is working properly. It is also important that a dentist check the patient’s teeth, gums, and mouth, and fix any existing problems before radiation therapy begins.

Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) is a type of 3-dimensional radiation therapy that uses a computer to make pictures of the size and shape of the tumor. Thin beams of radiation of different intensities (strengths) are aimed at the tumor from many angles. This type of radiation therapy causes less damage to healthy tissue near the tumor. Compared to standard radiation therapy, intensity-modulated radiation therapy may be less likely to cause xerostomia (dry mouth). This may improve the patient's quality of life.

Stereotactic radiation therapy uses a rigid head frame attached to the skull to aim radiation directly to a tumor, causing less damage to nearby healthy tissue. The total dose of radiation is divided into several smaller doses given over several days. This procedure is also called stereotactic external-beam radiation therapy and stereotaxic radiation therapy.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Chemotherapy may be given after radiation therapy to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after radiation therapy, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.

See Drugs Approved for Head and Neck Cancer for more information. (Nasopharyngeal cancer is a type of head and neck cancer.)

Surgery

Surgery is a procedure to find out whether cancer is present, to remove cancer from the body, or to repair a body part. Also called an operation. Surgery is sometimes used for nasopharyngeal cancer that does not respond to radiation therapy. If cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, the doctor may remove lymph nodes and other tissues in the neck.

New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.

Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.

Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.

For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.

Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.

Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.

Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.

Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. See the Treatment Options section that follows for links to current treatment clinical trials. These have been retrieved from NCI's listing of clinical trials.

Follow-up tests may be needed.

Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.

Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.

Last Updated: 2015-08-11

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