Nasopharyngeal cancer occurs when the genetic material of cells in the pharynx become damaged or changed, producing mutations that affect normal cell growth and division. The abnormal cells then replicate, causing cancer. If undetected, the cancer can spread beyond the throat and move to other parts of the body.

Only about 240 people are diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer each year in the UK. Though the exact cause of nasopharyngeal cancer is unknown, a number of factors can increase the risk of developing the condition.

About three times as many men as women are affected by nasopharyngeal cancer and the average age at diagnosis is about 50.

Symptoms of nasopharyngeal cancer

It is often hard to recognise nasopharyngeal cancer because the symptoms are similar to other less serious conditions, and many people don’t show symptoms until the cancer has progressed to an advanced stage. Symptoms of nasopharyngeal cancer can include:

  • A lump in the neck
  • Hearing loss (usually only in one ear)
  • Tinnitus (hearing sound from inside the body rather than from an outside source)
  • A blocked or stuffy nose
  • nosebleeds

If you have been experiencing any of these symptoms for more than three weeks, or if you have any concerns about similar symptoms, it is essential that you see your doctor.

How is nasopharyngeal cancer diagnosed?

Your consultant or oncologist will advise you on which tests are relevant to your individual symptoms. As nasopharyngeal cancer is rare, and the symptoms can indicate many other conditions, it is vital for the diagnosis to be as swift and as accurate as possible. Tests include:

  • An examination of the throat using a small mirror and a light
  • Nasendoscopy, which is where a thin, flexible telescope (endoscope) is inserted up your nose and passed down your throat to look for any abnormalities
  • Panendoscopy, which involves a more detailed examination of your nose and throat using a series of small telescopes
  • An MRI scan, a procedure that uses radio waves and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body
  • A CT scan, which shows a 3D image of the area being looked at
  • A biopsy, where cell samples are taken for examination for signs of cancer, which is usually done during a panendoscopy

Treatment of nasopharyngeal cancer

Patients are usually treated by a specialist multidisciplinary team. Due to the fact that it is difficult to access the affected area, surgery is not usually used to treat nasopharyngeal cancer. The main treatments for nasopharyngeal cancer are:

  • Radiotherapy, where high-energy rays are used to destroy the cancer cells
  • Chemotherapy, where chemical agents destroy the cancer cells preventing them from spreading to different areas