What is Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma?

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  • Written By: Michelle Arevalo
  • Edited By: Lucy Oppenheimer
  • Last Modified Date: 14 August 2019
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Nasopharyngeal carcinoma is cancer of nasopharynx, which is the area where the nasal passages and ear canals meet the top of the throat. Cancer in this part of the body differs from other cancers of the mouth or throat. It is a relatively rare form of cancer that can be difficult to detect in its early stages.

Typically, this form of cancer begins with the mutation of the squamous cells of the nasopharynx. These mutations cause abnormal cells to grow out of control and form tumors. A nasopharyngeal tumor may be hard to see and require examination by an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist, or otolaryngologist. Often, the ENT doctor will insert an endoscope through the nose or throat to look behind the patient's soft palate.

Nasopharyngeal cancer is not to be confused with oral cancers, throat cancer or sinus cancer, which begin in the sinuses or nasal cavity. While it does fall under the category of head and neck cancer, that classification encompasses a range of cancers that all begin in the mucosal linings of the mouth, nose and throat. Nasopharyngeal carcinoma is a specific condition, originating in the nasopharynx.


There are few, if any, symptoms of early nasopharyngeal carcinoma, or NPC. This is one reason the condition can be hard to diagnose in its beginning stages. When symptoms do occur, they include bloody nasal discharge, headache, double vision, nasal congestion on only one side of the nose and a lump in the neck caused by a swollen lymph node. Hearing loss in one ear may also indicate the disease. Anyone with these symptoms should consult a doctor.

Nasopharyngeal carcinoma is an uncommon cancer in most of the world. It is diagnosed most frequently in Asia, northern Africa and among the Inuit people of Alaska. Some researchers have noted similar diets among these populations as they all typically include a diet high in salty, preserved meats, fish and vegetables. One theory for why these foods may increase risk is based on the repeated inhalation of chemicals emitted when the nitrate-rich foods are cooked.

While Asian people have the highest incidence of the disease, Asians who consume a Western diet have less likelihood of developing nasopharyngeal carcinoma. This, some experts believe, strengthens the food theory. A family history of the disease also raises risk, as does a health history that includes the Epstein-Barr virus. While the reasons for the connection are unknown, medical studies have revealed traces of the Epstein-Barr virus in almost all nasopharyngeal cancer cells.

Men are affected by nasopharyngeal cancer more often than women. Most people with the disease are diagnosed between the ages of 30 and 55. This type of carcinoma is known, however, to sometimes occur in African children as well.


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