What Is Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma?

Nasopharyngeal carcinoma is a tumor that forms in the anatomical area where the sinuses drain into the pharynx at the back of the throat.
Nasopharyngeal carcinoma is a tumor that forms in the anatomical area where the sinuses drain into the pharynx at the back of the throat.

Nasopharyngeal cancer is a type of head and neck cancer that occurs when cells in the nasopharynx, the upper part of the throat behind the nose and near the base of the skull, grow out of control.

Most nasopharyngeal cancers are nasopharyngeal carcinoma. There are three types of nasopharyngeal cancer

  • Non-keratinizing undifferentiated carcinoma (the most common type in the U.S.)
  • Non-keratinizing differentiated carcinoma
  • Keratinizing squamous cell carcinoma

What Are Symptoms of Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma?

Symptoms of nasopharyngeal carcinoma include: 

  • A lump or mass in the neck 
  • Hearing loss
  • Ringing in the ear (tinnitus)
  • Ear pain
  • Feeling of fullness in the ear (especially on one side only)
  • Recurrent ear infections (more common in children)
  • Nasal blockage or stuffiness
  • Nosebleeds
  • Headaches
  • Facial pain or numbness
  • Trouble opening the mouth
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Trouble breathing or talking

What Causes Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma?

The cause of most cases of nasopharyngeal carcinoma is unknown. 

Risk factors for developing nasopharyngeal carcinoma include: 

  • Gender
    • Occurs about twice as often in males as in females
  • Ethnicity and where you live
    • Most common in southern China (including Hong Kong), Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Northwest Canada, and Greenland
    • In the U.S., it is most common in Asian and Pacific Islanders (particularly Chinese Americans), Native American and Alaskan natives, African Americans, whites, and Hispanics/Latinos
  • Diet
    • Diets very high in salt-cured fish and meat 
    • This diet is common in areas where the cancer is more prevalent
  • Infection with the Epstein-Barr virus
  • Family history
  • Smoking
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Workplace exposure to formaldehyde (possible; link is not clear)

How Is Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma Diagnosed?

In addition to a medical examination and patient history, tests used to diagnose nasopharyngeal carcinoma include:

  • Biopsy
    • Endoscopic biopsy
    • Fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy
  • Imaging tests
  • Blood tests
    • Complete blood counts (CBC
    • Blood chemistry 
    • Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) DNA levels

What Is the Treatment for Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma?

Treatment for nasopharyngeal carcinoma includes:

What Is the Life Expectancy for Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma?

Life expectancy for nasopharyngeal cancer is often expressed in 5-year survival rates, that is, how many people will be alive 5 years after diagnosis. 

Nasopharyngeal cancer 5-year survival rates:

  • Localized (no sign the cancer has spread outside the nasopharynx): 82% 
  • Regional (cancer has spread outside the nasopharynx to nearby structures or lymph nodes): 73% 
  • Distant (cancer has spread to distant parts of the body, such as the lungs or liver): 48%