Learn more about this rare form of cancer and how it is treated.
Nasopharyngeal cancer is a rare form of cancer that affects the nasopharynx, a region in the throat located behind the nasal cavity and soft palate. Nasopharyngeal cancer begins with a genetic mutation in the squamous cells, or superficial lining, of the nasopharynx.
In the United States, the disease affects one in 100,000 people annually.
This form of cancer is most common in Southeast Asia and Northern Africa.
Factors that put individuals at a higher risk of developing nasopharyngeal cancer have been identified, but some at-risk individuals never develop cancer while other individuals who are not at risk do develop it.
The largest factors which put individuals at risk are age, ethnicity, gender, medical history and nutritional intake. Although the disease can onset at any age, adults between the ages of 30 and 50 are more likely to develop nasopharyngeal cancer than younger or older individuals. The cancer is most common among populations in Southeast Asia and Northern Africa, and it affects immigrants from these countries in a greater quantity than it does American-born individuals of these ethnicities. Alaskan and Canadian Inuits are also at a greater risk for developing the disease. On average, men are diagnosed at a higher rate than women.
The Epstein-Barr virus is associated with several rare types of cancer, including nasopharyngeal cancer. The virus is common and usually produces symptoms akin to those of a mild cold. The precise mechanism by which the Epstein-Barr virus causes nasopharyngeal cancer has not been solidified, but scientists believe that during infection, DNA from the virus is transferred to the host’s DNA and causes a mutation where cells proliferate abnormally.
A familial history of nasopharyngeal cancer increases the risk that an individual has for developing tumors of the nasopharynx. In addition, specific genes can be linked to tumor development and possessing them increases the risk factor as well. Diet also plays a fairly large role, as people who consume more salt-cured foods are at a higher risk. This is because the steam released during the cooking process contains chemicals that irritate the nasopharynx and can cause cell mutation.
Nasopharyngeal cancer typically does not present symptoms in its early stages. Once the cancer is further advanced, symptoms may appear but are often mistaken for a viral or bacterial infection. Symptoms may include:
Bloody mucous, including nasal discharge and saliva
A lump in the throat
Swollen lymph nodes
Changes in hearing or hearing loss
To diagnose nasopharyngeal cancer, medical practitioners perform a physical examination of the patient and study their medical history. Imaging and other tests may be performed to aid the diagnosis.
An endoscopy may be performed to examine the nasal and oral cavities. The procedure involves inserting a small, flexible tube through the mouth or nose. If an abnormality is discovered, a biopsy may be performed where the medical staff will remove a small piece of tissue for further examination.
The course of treatment differs for each patient based on overall health and the stage of cancer growth. Radiation treatment is usually very effective at targeting tumors of the nasopharynx and is often used by itself or at the same time as other treatments. If the cancer is advanced, radiation and chemotherapy treatments are often used in conjunction. In some cases, surgical removal of the tumor is performed.