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Nasopharyngeal Cancer

What is Nasopharyngeal Cancer?

Nasopharyngeal cancer (NPC) is a type of head and neck cancer that affects the lining of the nasopharynx. The nasopharynx is located behind the nose, at the back of the nasal cavity. It forms the upper part of the pharynx, a tube that runs from the back of your nose to the top of the windpipe and esophagus. NPC is a squamous cell cancer, meaning it develops in the squamous cell lining of the nasopharynx.

This type of cancer is more rare than other types of head and neck cancer like oral, oropharyngeal, or laryngeal, and is more common in Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa.

Having risk factors for a condition does not mean that you will develop it.

Sometimes people develop a condition without having risk factors for it. However, doctors always consider a person's risk factors when they are trying to diagnose a condition.

The identified risk factors for nasopharyngeal cancer include:

  • Heavy alcohol consumption
  • Tobacco use
  • Asian ancestry
  • Previous exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus (which is also a risk factor for some other cancers)
  • Age — the chance of being diagnosed with NPC increases with age

Because this type of cancer can grow or spread, it can invade nearby tissues of the throat or brain and can also spread throughout your body.

Symptoms of NPC may occur in the face, head and neck, and may seem to indicate other illnesses that are not serious. You should remember, however, to always see a doctor if you have any health problems or symptoms that do not disappear on their own, or after normal treatment.

Symptoms may include:

  • Sore throat.
  • Blood in your nose or saliva.
  • Frequent nasal congestion or nasal blockage
  • Ringing in your ears (tinnitus), hearing loss, or ear infections that keep coming back
  • Headaches.
  • Lumps or bumps on the neck, which may be swollen lymph nodes.
  • Sinus infections that keep coming back.

If you or your doctor suspect that you may have NPC, UPMC can provide an answer. After taking your medical history, your doctor will examine your neck and the inside of your nose. Your doctor may use a small camera on a flexible tube to view the back of your nasal cavity.

If any areas look concerning, you may have a biopsy. During a biopsy, the doctor removes a small piece of tissue to examine it for cancer cells. You may need to have other tests such as:

If the biopsy or other tests confirm a diagnosis of cancer, the results will also reveal whether the cancer is confined to that area, or if it has spread. This is known as "staging," which guides your treatment plan.

Treatment for your cancer depends on its stage and whether it has spread. At UPMC, we treat head and neck cancer with a combination of three different treatments, which include:

Chemotherapy: During chemotherapy, medications are administered orally or through an IV. Chemotherapy can make you feel sick and can sometimes affect other organs like the liver, so your team will monitor your health closely during chemotherapy to watch for side effects. Chemotherapy is often combined with radiation to make the radiation work better.

Learn more about chemotherapy.

Radiation: Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays or concentrated radioactive material to kill cancer cells. UPMC offers several types of radiation therapy, all of which have been developed to target the cancer and affect healthy tissue as little as possible. Radiation has some side effects, which may include dry mouth, skin problems, and fatigue.

Learn more about radiation therapy.

Surgery: UPMC offers innovative, cutting-edge surgical techniques to treat nasopharyngeal cancer. The goal of surgical treatment is to remove as much cancer as possible while leaving healthy tissue alone. Minimally invasive surgery such as robotic surgery has several benefits, which include better surgical precision and shorter hospital stays.

Learn more about surgical options at UPMC.

Additionally, the treatment team may discuss a clinical trial which can include immunotherapy

UPMC has provided high-quality services to Pittsburgh, the surrounding areas, and to people around the world for more than 30 years. Our team of experts who focus on head and neck cancer every day includes:

  • Ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialists
  • Surgeons
  • Medical and radiation oncologists
  • Audiologists
  • Speech pathologists

We are a trusted leader in head and neck cancer care, providing proven, cutting-edge services to each individual we see, and conducting research to constantly improve the care we deliver.

Contact Us

To make an appointment for head and neck cancer care at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, call 412-647-2811.