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Nasopharyngeal Cancer

Nasopharyngeal Cancer

Nasopharyngeal carcinoma is cancer that occurs in the nasopharynx, located behind your nose and above the back of your throat. According to the most recent statistics published by the American Cancer Society, nasopharyngeal cancer is very rare in the United States. There is less than 1 case of nasopharyngeal cancer per 100,000 people in the US. This means that in 2013, less than 2,900 cases will occur in the United States. It is much more commonly seen in Southeast Asia and Northern Africa.

Nasopharyngeal carcinoma is difficult to detect early. The nasopharnyx is not easily examined and symptoms of nasopharyngeal carcinoma are similar to those of other more common conditions like the common cold.

Symptoms of Nasopharyngeal Cancer:

The symptoms of nasopharyngeal carcinoma often mimic the symptoms of common conditions like viral and bacterial infections like the common cold. In its early stages, it may not cause any symptoms at all, making it difficult to detect. Some people with nasopharyngeal carcinoma may experience:

  • Persistent cold-like symptoms: congestion, throat soreness, etc…
  • Feeling a lump or ball in your throat/neck
  • Changes in hearing
  • Recurrent ear infections
  • Headaches
  • Bloody saliva or mucus

Risk Factors for Nasopharyngeal Cancer:

There are several factors which may increase your risk of nasopharyngeal cancer:

  • Ethnicity - It more commonly affects people in Southeast Asia and northern Africa.
  • Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) - Although it usually only causes a mild viral infection with cold like symptoms, EBV has also been linked to rare cancers like nasopharyngeal carcinoma.
  • Genetics - Having a family member with nasopharyngeal carcinoma increases your risk of the disease.
  • Being Male - It is most commonly seen in men.
  • Age- Most commonly diagnosed in adults between the ages of 30 and 50.
  • Smoked Foods - Exposure to the steam when cooking smoked fish or vegetables can get into the nasopharynx.

Diagnosis of Nasopharyngeal Cancer:

Here at UC-Irvine’s Head and Neck Department, we offer the latest, state-of-the-art diagnostic and imaging technology. Combined with our patient-centered approach to diagnosis and treatment, this allows us to offer the most effective and comprehensive head and neck treatment in Orange County. When considering the possibility of nasopharygeal cancer as a diagnosis, there are several steps that are taken to ensure an accurate diagnosis is made.

Medical History: The process of forming a diagnosis always begins with a thorough and candid discussion between patient and doctor to create and/or review the medical history.

Physical Examination: A detailed and targeted physical examination of the head and neck will start with a visual inspection. Checking for swollen lymph nodes in the neck and inspecting the throat with a small, long-handed mirror can also help in forming a diagnosis.

Visual Examination: Endoscopy may be performed to get a visual of the entire oral cavity and nasopharynx. This is done by inserting a very thin, lighted tube through the nose or mouth and into the nasopharynx. Tissue samples for biopsy may be taken at this time as well.

Imaging Studies: In order to obtain a more detailed view of the head and neck, X-Rays, an MRI, and CT/PET scans, may be ordered to confirm or rule out the diagnosis of nasopharyngeal cancer.

Treatment of Nasopharyngeal Cancer:

Once the diagnosis of nasopharyngeal cancer is made, we will discuss and review a personalized treatment plan for you. The many treatment options for nasopharyngeal cancer here at UC-Irvine correlate with the stage (severity/extent) of the cancer, your health, and other factors specific to you.

Radiation Therapy-

Radiation therapy is used to target and kill cancer cells through high energy rays and beams. You will be positioned on a table as the radiation machine targets and applies its beams to the exact point of your cancer. Depending on the extent and severity of your nasopharyngeal cancer, radiation therapy may be used as solo treatment or may be combined with other forms of treatment such as chemotherapy and/or surgery. It is considered a key component of treatment for nasopharyngeal cancer because it tends to be very sensitive to radiation.

Here at UC-Irvine’s state of the art facility, our head and neck cancer radiation treatment can include the latest, most advanced forms of radiation treatment including intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). IMRT is a very specific, computer driven radiation therapy technique that allows for more accurate therapy, limiting radiation exposure to surrounding healthy tissue.


Chemotherapy is used to stop the growth of cancer cells by stopping them from dividing and/or killing them through the use of anti-cancer drugs such as Cisplatin. The anti-cancer agents are given orally or intravenously (IV) as a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. Chemotherapy treatments are often given in 3-4 week cycles, followed by periods of rest, allowing the body to recover. For more advanced stages of nasopharyngeal cancer, chemotherapy is administered along with radiation therapy to make cancer cells more sensitive to the radiation therapy, a treatment known as chemoradiation.


Surgical removal of a tumor in the nasopharynx is reserved for cases which do not respond to radiation or chemotherapy. Due to its location, the nasopharynx is difficult to operate on. Here at UC-Irvine’s Head and Neck Department, our experienced head and neck surgeons are trained in the latest endoscopic surgical techniques which utilize flexible fiber-optic scopes and thin surgical instruments to access the nasopharynx for removal of the tumor. If the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, commonly seen in nasopharyngeal cancer, then a surgical procedure called neck dissection can remove these affected lymph nodes.

Visit UC-Irvine’s Head and Neck Department in Orange County for comprehensive screening, diagnosis and treatment of nasopharyngeal cancer and other forms of oral cancer.