Nasopharyngeal cancer

Nasopharyngeal cancer is a rare type of cancer affecting the area at the back of the nasal cavity. See your GP if you develop any worrying symptoms, particularly if they don't improve after a few weeks, (see below).

About nasopharyngeal cancer

Nasopharyngeal cancer affects the part of the throat connecting the back of the nose to the back of the mouth (the mouth and oropharynx).

Nasopharyngeal cancer shouldn't be confused with other types of cancer that also affect the throat, such as laryngeal cancer and oesophageal cancer.

Symptoms of nasopharyngeal cancer

It's often difficult to recognise nasopharyngeal cancer because the symptoms are similar to other conditions. Also, many people with nasopharyngeal cancer don't have any symptoms until the cancer reaches an advanced stage.

Symptoms can include:

  • a lump in the neck
  • hearing loss – usually only in one ear
  • tinnitus – hearing sounds that come from inside the body rather than from an outside source
  • a blocked or stuffy nose
  • nosebleeds

When to see your GP

See your GP if you develop any worrying symptoms particularly if they don't improve after a few weeks, see above. While they're very unlikely to be caused by nasopharyngeal cancer, it's best to get them checked out.

If you see your GP with symptoms that could show nasopharyngeal cancer, they'll usually ask about your symptoms and carry out some examinations. This may involve examining your throat using a small mirror and a light.

If your GP thinks further tests are necessary, they'll refer you to hospital. At hospital, a number of different tests may be carried out to check for nasopharyngeal cancer and rule out other conditions.

Once these tests are complete, your doctors will be able to confirm whether you have nasopharyngeal cancer.

Causes of nasopharyngeal cancer

The exact cause of nasopharyngeal cancer is unknown. But a number of factors can increase your risk of developing the condition.

These include:

  • being of south Chinese or north African descent
  • having a diet very high in salt-cured meats and fish
  • being exposed to the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), a common virus that causes glandular fever
  • having a job where you're regularly exposed to hardwood dust
  • having a close  relative, such as a parent, who's had the condition

Being exposed to the human papilloma virus (HPV) may also increase your risk of developing certain types of nasopharyngeal cancer.

About three times as many men as women are affected by nasopharyngeal cancer, and the average age at diagnosis is about 50.

Treatment for nasopharyngeal cancer

If you are diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer, your hospital consultant will discuss treatment options with you.

The two main treatments for nasopharyngeal cancer are:

  • radiotherapy – where radiation is used to kill cancer cells
  • chemotherapy – where medication is used to kill cancer cells

In most cases, a combination of radiotherapy and chemotherapy will be used.

Outlook

The outlook for nasopharyngeal cancer depends on your age, general health and how advanced the condition is when you're diagnosed.

There are no UK wide statistics for nasopharyngeal cancer survival. Cancer Research UK quotes figures for all people diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer in England. These figures would suggest a similar outlook for people diagnosed with the cancer in Northern Ireland.

Overall, about 50 out of every 100 people diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer will live for 5 years or more after diagnosis.

Survival rates are better for younger people, but worse for older people. Around 70 out of 100 people under 45 years of age, and 35 out of 100 people aged 65 to 74, will live for 5 years or more after being diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer.

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

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