Nasopharyngeal cancer, also known as nasopharyngeal carcinoma, is rare, affecting only one out of 100,000 Americans each year.
The disease attacks the nasopharynx, which is behind the nose and above the throat, and it can be difficult to detect. Many symptoms of nasopharyngeal cancer only appear when the cancer is at an advanced stage.
- One of the most common symptoms is the feeling of a lump in the neck or throat.
- Some symptoms, such as sore throat and congestion, are associated with other conditions, which causes some patients to dismiss or ignore those symptoms.
Patients may also experience difficulty breathing or speaking, trouble opening their mouth, changes in hearing, and frequent ear infections. They may have headaches, nosebleeds, and pain or ringing in the ears. Other symptoms include blurry or double vision, facial pain and numbness, or bloody mucus or saliva.
Causes and Risk Factors
Cancer is the result of mutated cells growing out of control, invading surrounding areas and spreading to other body parts. In nasopharyngeal cancer, the mutation occurs in the squamous cells lining the nasopharynx. While the exact cause of this mutation is unknown, there are known risk factors.
- More common in males
- More common in people of Chinese, Southeast Asian, northern African and Alaskan Inuit descent
- Common between ages 30 and 50
- A family history of the disease
- Salt-cured foods include a chemical that is released through steam and smoke during cooking. This can get inside the nasopharynx and increase the risk of cancer.
- The Epstein-Barr virus
Diagnosing the Condition
After a detailed patient history and thorough physical exam of the patient’s head, neck and throat, the physician may perform an endoscopy by inserting a small, lighted tube into the nose or mouth. This is to look for abnormalities and get tissue samples. If the diagnosis confirms nasopharyngeal carcinoma, imaging tests, such as MRIs, CTs and X-rays, can give a detailed view of head and neck structures, which helps the physician identify tumors and determine how far the cancer has progressed.
Each cancer diagnosis is different, and treatment plans are made based on a patient’s medical needs. Some patients may have one or more of the following treatment options:
Radiation Therapy: Radiation therapy kills cancerous cells and prevents them from growing. With external radiation therapy, an X-ray or other machine outside the body sends radiation in the direction of the cancer inside the body. Internal radiation therapy involves placing radioactive material inside needles, catheters, wires, or seeds and placing those devices into or close to the cancer.
Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy involves cancer drugs designed to stop cancer cell growth by killing the cells or preventing them from dividing. Some chemotherapy drugs are placed directly into a part of the body, such as cerebrospinal fluid or an organ, so that the medicine affects cancerous cells in that particular area.
Surgery: If other treatments don’t work, or if cancer has reached lymph nodes, surgery may be performed to remove the diseased cells and other damaged areas that are not repairable.