Youth Cancer

Nasopharyngeal Cancer

The nasopharynx connects the nose to the back of the mouth. Most nasopharyngeal cancers are squamous cell carcinomas.

  • Other types of cancer that can develop in the nasopharynx are lymphomas, melanomas and sarcomas.


What causes nasopharyngeal cancer?

Like a lot of cancers, the cause of cancer of the nasopharynx is unknown. There are a number of factors that increase the risk of developing it.

  • Specific diets: Some African and Asian diets consume food that contains nitrosamines which are thought to be a risk factor.
  • Epstein-Barr virus: This virus causes Glandular fever, and is also thought to increase the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer.


What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of nasopharyngeal cancer may include:

  • Blocked nose
  • Painless swelling in the upper neck
  • Nosebleeds
  • Unexplained changes in hearing
  • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)

TIP: If you have any of these symptoms you should have them checked by your doctor - but remember, they are common to many illnesses other than nasopharyngeal cancer.


How is it diagnosed?

After visiting a GP a referral will probably be made to a hospital for some tests. These may include:

  • Endoscope: The specialist will examine your nasopharynx by using a very thin, flexible tube with a light at the end (nasendoscope).
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
  • CT scan
  • Isotope bone scan: Identifies abnormal areas of bone through scanning an area that has been injected with a mild radioactive substance. 


For more information check out our Tests page.


How is it treated?

A team of doctors and other staff at the hospital will plan treatment. It will depend on the size of the tumour and where it is.

Treatment may be undertaken by an oncologist (a doctor who specialises in treating cancer with chemotherapy) and a radiologist (a doctor who specialises in treating cancer with radiation).

Treatment may involve:

  • Radiotherapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Surgery


Radiotherapy for nasopharyngeal cancer

Radiotherapy is the main treatment for nasopharyngeal cancer.

It is usually given to the lymph glands in the neck as well as the nasopharyngeal area.

It can be administered from outside the body (external beam radiotherapy) or by implanting radioactive material into the tumour (internal radiotherapy).

One of the side effects of radiation treatment for nasopharyngeal cancer is a dry mouth as the salivary glands are affected. It is important to maintain mouth care and visit a dentist regularly.

For more information go to our radiotherapy fact sheet.


Chemotherapy for nasopharyngeal cancer

Chemotherapy is may be given to treat nasopharyngeal cancer.

For more information go to our chemotherapy fact sheet.


Surgery for nasopharyngeal cancer

After a course of radiotherapy a surgeon may suggest surgery to remove any remaining affected lymph nodes, and as a precautionary measure, remove unaffected lymph nodes too.

For more information go to our surgery fact sheet.