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Nasopharyngeal cancer (or nasopharyngeal carcinoma) is a type of head and neck cancer that develops in the nasopharynx. This is the part of the throat at the back of the nose (or nasal cavity). 'Naso' means nose and the 'pharynx' is the throat.
The most common risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer is an infection called Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), which causes glandular fever. As with other cancers, nasopharyngeal cancer is not infectious and cannot be passed on to other people.
EBV is very common. Almost everyone is infected with EBV at some time during their life. The body’s immune system is normally able to get rid of the virus, and usually infections do not cause any problems.
Most people with EBV will not develop nasopharyngeal cancer.
We have more information about the causes and risk factors of head and neck cancers.
If you have symptoms, you usually begin by seeing your GP.
They will refer you to a specialist doctor if:
- they think that your symptoms could be caused by cancer
- they are not sure what the problem is.
The specialist doctor will ask about your symptoms and general health.
If your only symptom is a lump in your neck, you may be referred to a hospital that has a neck lump clinic.
You may have some of the following tests:
The doctor collects samples (biopsies) of cells or tissue from the area that looks abnormal. A doctor who specialises in analysing cells (called a pathologist) looks at the sample under a microscope for cancer cells. You usually have a general anaesthetic for this. You may need to spend the night in hospital.
Ultrasound scan of the neck
Fine needle aspiration (FNA) of the lymph nodes
You may have a fine needle aspiration (FNA) of the lymph nodes if the lymph nodes in your neck do not feel or look normal on a scan. It is done to see whether there are any cancer cells in the lymph nodes.
Waiting for test results can be a difficult time, we have more information that can help.
Further tests for nasopharyngeal cancer
Your specialist may arrange further tests. These may help diagnose nasopharyngeal cancer or be used to check whether it has spread:
Testing for viruses
If you have nasopharyngeal cancer, your doctor may do a test to see if it is linked to the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).
The results of your tests help your doctors find out more about the size and position of the cancer and whether it has spread. This is called staging.
A doctor decides the grade of the cancer by how the cancer cells look under the microscope. This gives an idea of how quickly the cancer might grow or spread.
Knowing the stage and grade helps your doctors plan the best treatment for you.
A team of specialists will meet to discuss the best possible treatment for you. This is called a multidisciplinary team (MDT).
Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse will explain the different treatments and their side effects. They will also talk to you about things to consider when making treatment decisions.
Treatment for nasopharyngeal cancer may include:
Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. It can be used on its own but is often given in combination with radiotherapy to treat nasopharyngeal cancer. This is called chemoradiation.
We have more information about:
- how different treatments are used to treat nasopharyngeal cancer
- what will happen before your treatment and how to prepare.
You may have some treatments as part of a clinical trial.
You will have regular follow-up appointments after treatment. These may continue for several years. You may also have regular follow-up appointments with a speech and language therapist (SLT), dietitian, restorative dentist and dental hygienist.
If you have any problems or notice new symptoms between appointments, let your doctor know as soon as possible.
Sex life and fertility
Well-being and recovery
Even if you already have a healthy lifestyle, you may choose to make some positive lifestyle changes after treatment.
Making small changes to the way you live such as eating well and keeping active can improve your health and well-being and help your body recover.
It can be difficult to eat well after treatment for head and neck cancer, but your dietitian can help you.
Your feelings after nasopharyngeal cancer treatment
For some people, it takes several months to recover from treatment. It can be hard to cope if treatment has changed your appearance, voice or how you eat and drink. It is common to feel overwhelmed by different feelings.
There are national support groups that you may find helpful:
Macmillan is also here to support you. If you would like to talk, you can:
Below is a sample of the sources used in our nasopharyngeal cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
British Association of Head and Neck Oncologists. Head and Neck Cancer: United Kingdom National Multidisciplinary Guidelines. 2016. Available from: https://www.bahno.org.uk/_userfiles/pages/files/ukheadandcancerguidelines2016.pdf (accessed September 2018).
Simo R, Robinson M, Lei M et al. Nasopharyngeal carcinoma: United Kingdom National Multidisciplinary Guidelines. The Journal of Laryngology and Otology, 2016: 130 (Suppl 2): S97–S103, Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4873914/ (accessed September 2018)
This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr Chris Alcock, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.
Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.