Nasopharyngeal cancer occurs most frequently in people from southern China, southeast Asia, and northern Africa, but does occur in the United States. The nasopharynx is the area located behind the nasal passages and above the throat.

This is where the adenoids are located, as well as the openings of the Eustachian tubes, which allow you to equalize the pressure in your ears. A small tumor in this location does not usually cause symptoms. As a result, most cases of nasopharyngeal cancer are not detected until the disease has already spread to the lymph nodes in the neck.

What Are the Symptoms of Nasopharyngeal Cancer?

Symptoms of nasopharyngeal cancer may include:

  • Difficulty hearing through one ear and a sensation that the ear is clogged
  • Difficulty breathing through the nose
  • Nasal discharge or nosebleeds
  • Headache
  • Masses in the neck

What Causes Nasopharyngeal Cancer?

Nasopharyngeal cancer often stems from infection by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). However, only a very small percentage of people infected by EBV will develop nasopharyngeal cancer. There are genetic risk factors, such as Cantonese ethnicity, that make it much more likely. Heavy consumption of salt-preserved fish, low intake of fresh fruit and vegetables, and tobacco smoking all raise the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer.

What Are the Treatment Options?

Early-stage nasopharyngeal cancer is treated with radiation alone, using a technique called intensity-modulated radiation therapy, which limits the amount of radiation received by nearby structures such as the salivary glands, the jaw muscles, and the brain. When the cancer is at a more advanced stage, but has not yet spread throughout the body, the standard treatment is to give chemotherapy and radiation at the same time. Patients at higher risk for treatment failure may benefit from receiving additional chemotherapy, either before or after concurrent chemoradiation.

What Questions Should I Ask My Doctor?

  1. Does my ancestry and/or lifestyle put me at a greater risk for nasopharyngeal cancer?
  2. Should I have a blood test to screen for nasopharyngeal cancer?
  3. Do I need a tube in my eardrum (due to cancer blocking the Eustachian tube)?
  4. Am I a candidate for a clinical trial?