Cancer might be one of the most feared diseases worldwide. No matter what type of cancer we look at, it is deadly and affects thousands and millions of individuals around the world each year. And one such cancer is Nasopharyngeal cancer. It is a rare form of cancer that affects a certain part of the throat. This cancer is most commonly found in parts of China, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, the Arctic, and various other regions. Even though not common in Americans, this cancer still affects Asians who live in America or even Asian Americans or African Americans.
In America, this cancer is commonly found among young children aged between 15 and 24 and older people between the ages of 65 to 79. However, not all throat cancers are nasopharyngeal cancer. There are different types of throat cancer, like esophageal and laryngeal cancer. So, if you want to know what nasopharyngeal cancer is, its symptoms, and its causes, then let’s dive right into it.
What Is Nasopharyngeal Cancer?
Nasopharyngeal is a rare type of cancer that is located in the neck and head region. It begins from the upper throat area and behind the nose and is known as the nasopharynx. The nasopharynx consists of the area below your skull and the upper mouth area.
There are several different types of cancers that affect the neck and back areas, so it is difficult to detect cancer at an early stage. The symptoms of nasopharyngeal cancer are similar to some very-common types of problems.
Where Is Nasopharyngeal Cancer Located?
Image of a Pharynx
The pharynx consists of the nostrils, tongue, soft and hard palate, epiglottis, nasopharynx, trachea, and more. The nasopharynx is a hollow tube that connects the mouth and the nose. It is a 5-inch tube that begins from the nose and goes down to the trachea (also known as the windpipe) and esophagus (tube responsible for sending food down to the stomach).
Nasopharyngeal cancer cells generally begin to build up in the squamous cells (the thin and flat cells on the surface of the skin of hollow organs) that line the nasopharynx.
How Common Is Nasopharyngeal Cancer?
Nasopharyngeal cancer is a rare cancer in the United States. And it is more commonly found in Southeast Asia, Africa, the Arctic, and the Middle East. However, the problem is more common in the US among Asian Americans and Asians living in the United States. When we look at the numbers, the people at more risk of developing this cancer in the US are between the ages of 15 to 24 and 65 to 79. This cancer is as rare as one person every year for every 100,000 people in the United States.
What Are The Different Types Of Nasopharyngeal Cancer Tumors?
When it comes to Nasopharyngeal tumors, some are cancerous, and some are not. Therefore, to know which is what you should always go and consult a doctor. Now let’s discuss what different types of Nasopharyngeal Cancers are:
Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma (NPC)
Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma is the most common type of Nasopharynx cancer. However, there are different types of NPCs because of how they develop or react to different types of viruses. Doctors can only detect different types of tumors and cancers when they check the viruses and cells closely and thoroughly in the lab.
Keratinizing Squamous Cell Carcinoma
It is the most common type of cancer found in areas like the US.
Non-Keratinizing Differentiated Carcinoma
Less probability of happening in places with high NPC rates is generally linked with EBV (Epstein-Barr Virus).
Non-Keratinizing Undifferentiated Carcinoma
High probability of positive diagnosis in places with high NPC, and it is often connected to EBV (Epstein-Barr Virus).
Basaloid Squamous Cell Carcinoma
It is a very aggressive and very rare type of NPC.
What Are The Symptoms Of Nasopharyngeal Cancer?
The First Signs Of Nasopharyngeal Cancer are:
- Formation of a lump in the throat that does not go away for at least three weeks
- Complete hearing loss in one year
- Hearing sounds from inside the body (tinnitus)
- A stuffy or blocked nose
However, detecting this cancer’s early symptoms is difficult, or you can very rarely detect them. Therefore, the common and more noticeable symptoms of this cancer type are:
- Blood mixed with the saliva
- Recurring infection in the ear
- Frequent headaches
- Ringing noise in the ear and nasal congestion
- Problem in hearing
- Formation of a lump in your throat area or a swollen lymph node
- Blood coming from your nose
- Sore throat issues
- Double vision
- Unexpected weight loss
- The bottom of your face feels numb
Note: If any of these symptoms do not improve after three weeks, you should consult a general practitioner. It can turn out to be nasopharyngeal cancer, or it may just be some regular symptoms, but you must get them checked out by an expert.
What Are The Risks And Causes Of Nasopharyngeal Cancer?
There are certain risk factors that can heighten your chances of developing nasopharyngeal cancer. These factors include:
Your gender plays a role in increasing your risk of NPC cancer. It is the type of cancer that affects males two to three times more than females.
If you are living in a country or state with a low risk of Nasopharyngeal Cancer, then the people living there are not at risk of NPC before reaching their old age.
However, in areas where NPC is more common or is detected at a higher rate, teenagers and youngsters are at a higher risk of being diagnosed with this cancer. For instance, if you look at the numbers, 1 out of 5 cases of NPC are detected in individuals below 30. And after 59, the number of individuals diagnosed with NPC starts to drop.
Ethnicity Or Location
Since NPC is more common in North Africa, Asian countries, and the Arctic region, it is more likely to affect people who are native to these places. For instance, if you are an individual from a country like China, you are an individual with a higher risk of NPC. However, if you move to another country like the US (with low NPC levels), you are at a lower risk of NPC. But still at a higher risk than the white natives of America.
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Infection
The Human Papillomavirus (HPV) consists of 150 viruses that can lead to different cancers, including the mouth and throat. According to some research, if there is a high risk of HPV in an individual, then it can lead to NPC, especially in youngsters who do not smoke. Although the chances of cancer developing are very slim, it is still a possibility that you cannot overlook.
In areas where people eat food that is salt-cured, the number of NPC tends to be higher. For example, countries like China, and Northern Africa, have a high consumption rate of salt-cured food like fish and meat. These salted foods, when cooked, release chemicals that become the cause of NPC. Whereas, if you are consuming food products like legumes, low-dairy products, nuts, vegetables, and fruits, then the risk of NPC decreases.
Epstein-Barr Virus Infection (EBV)
Epstein-Barr Virus is a very common type of virus that is found around the world. In the United States, the virus is found to be more common among teenagers or youngsters and is also known as mono. Thus, if you have contracted EBV, you are at risk of developing NPC. However, EBV generally leads to infections instead of cancer, but it still creates a possibility of developing NPC. Also, if you smoke or your genes react differently with the EBV virus, it can play a role in the evolution or development of NPC.
However, the link between EBV infection and NPC cancerous cells is still under investigation and is being studied by experts.
If you have a family history of NPC, then the chances of you developing this cancer go higher. The reason behind this is not confirmed, but it could be because of the same environmental factors, inherited genes, or even a combination of both.
When someone in your family has a history of NPC, then there are chances that you may have inherited the same tissues that lead to cancer. These tissues then increase your chances of developing cancerous cells and EBV infection.
According to various studies, when an individual smokes, it reactivates the EBV infection cells in the body, which can result in the development of NPC cells.
According to research findings, individuals who drink copiously are at risk of developing NPC cancer. Especially in places like Europe and the US.
How Do Doctors Diagnose Nasopharyngeal Cancer?
Generally, NPC is diagnosed when an individual goes to a doctor with complaints of a lump in the neck or a stuffy nose. And if a doctor thinks that your symptoms are directed towards NPC, he will conduct a proper physical examination session and learn about your family history. He will take a good look at your throat, nose, and ears. The doctor may also suggest you to a specialist for a proper examination.
The doctor may also manually check your throat for any lumps to ensure that your cancer is not spreading to the lymph nodes. After which, they can insert a tube through your nose or mouth to better understand the stage of your cancer and check for any other problems like bleeding or abnormal growth of the tumor. This procedure is known as Nasopharyngoscopy.
If the results turn out to be unusual, then the doctors will suggest a biopsy. Wherein the doctors will take a small number of tissue samples from the problematic area; the sample will then be studied under a microscope. And if the tests confirm the presence of NPC, then the doctor will conduct image testing to know about the size of the tumor and its exact placement. The tests may include the following:
- Neck ultrasound
- CT scan
- Chest X-ray
- EBV testing
- Complete blood tests
What Are The Stages Of Nasopharyngeal Cancer?
Nasopharyngeal Cancer is divided into five stages. From stage 0 to stage IV, let’s look at what each stage consists of.
The very first stage of NCP is what the doctors describe as carcinoma in situ. In this stage, the abnormal cells are found lining the nasopharynx, which can then turn into cancer cells and spread to the close by areas and tissues.
It is the beginning stage of the NPC. In this stage, the malignant cells have not spread to distant body parts or the lymph nodes.
The second stage of NPC indicates the spread of cancerous cells to the lymph nodes but not the other body parts.
Stage III and Stage IV
These two stages are the advanced stages of NPC. And in both stages, the size of the tumor has increased and advanced to other parts like the nearby tissues, lymph nodes, and other distant parts of the body.
Note: If your Nasopharyngeal Cancer returns after your treatment for any reason, it is known as recurrent cancer.
What Is The Survival Rate For Nasopharyngeal Cancer?
If your cancer is detected in the early stage and is only located in the nasopharynx, then the 5-year survival rate is around 85%. However, if your cancer has started to spread and has reached nearby organs, tissues, or even your lymph nodes, then the 5-year survival rate stands at 71%. And lastly, if your cancer cells have reached distant areas of your body, the 5-year survival rate can go as low as 49%.
What Are Treatment Options For Nasopharyngeal Cancer?
If you are diagnosed with NPC, you must go to a doctor for proper medical check-ups and follow-ups. The type of treatment you will get depends on several things, like your tumor stage, the location of your tumor, and your overall health. The different types of treatments used to treat this cancer are:
It is a kind of drug therapy that uses strong chemicals to kill the cancerous cells in the body. But to treat nasopharyngeal cancer, this treatment alone may not be enough. And thus, it is usually combined with biological drugs or radiotherapy. Just like every other cancer treatment, this treatment also has various side effects, like:
- Hair loss.
- Hearing loss
- Vomiting and nausea
- Loss of appetite.
- Dry mouth
Radiation therapy is a kind of cancer treatment that uses strong radiation beams to stop the cancer cells from growing further and killing them. It is a standard treatment for treating the beginning stages of nasopharyngeal cancer.
The new-age IMRT treatment is the best possible treatment for reducing the size of NPC tumors without causing major damage to all the healthy tissues around the tumor. Also, this treatment ensures that you don’t have to face extreme side effects or problems that are common with the traditional type of radiation therapy, for example:
- Inflammation around the mouth and throat lining
- Damage to the tooth
- Brain stem injury
- Dry mouth
- Damage to the healthy tissues around the tumor
- Hearing loss
- Mouth sores
- Skin irritation and redness
This treatment is for controlling the cancer symptoms and the side effects that you may feel after your cancer treatment. The treatment does not cure cancer, but it solely relieves its symptoms to make you comfortable. The side effects that you may face due to palliative therapy are:
- Vomiting and Nausea
- Worsening of symptoms
- Issues in the throat and mouth area
- Hair loss
Biologic drugs are strong medications that change the working of the immune system in fighting diseases. These drugs are generally used in cases of recurrent or advanced stages of cancer. The drugs include monoclonal antibodies like Erbitux, Opdivo, and Keytruda. There are several side effects of this treatment method as well, like:
- Rashes or dry skin
- Blood clotting
- Liver issues
- High blood pressure
Even though surgery is often an option for removing cancer tumors from the body, it is not an ideal choice for treating this type of cancer as it can cause damage to important nerves and blood vessels. Surgery for removing NPC can also cause damage to the eye and all the close by structures. Therefore, this option is not entirely suitable for Nasopharyngeal cancer treatment, but it can be used in certain cases. Side effects of surgery are:
- Swelling because of fluid buildup
- Damage to the nerves
If any treatment does not work out well for you, you can also consider a clinical trial. In these trials, researchers are always trying new ways to treat cancer. You can always ask your doctor for any recommendation for Nasopharyngeal cancer clinical trials around you.
Follow-up Care After The Treatment
The one thing that comes after you are done with cancer is the excitement of being cancer free and the worry about cancer coming back. And with NPC, there is always a risk of recurrence, especially in other parts of the body. After you are done with the treatment, your doctor will always ensure that you are aware of the follow-up tests and check-ups that you may require to monitor your health condition and to check for any side effects from the treatment. These tests and regular check-ups are also important to know whether you are cancer-free or not.
Individuals who are detected at an early stage of NPC might need fewer visits to the doctor. However, if your cancer is diagnosed at an advanced level. In that case, you will have to go for your visits more frequently and get several tests like blood tests, imaging, dental test, nutrition follow-up, and hearing, speech, and swallowing rehabilitation.
How Aggressive Is Nasopharyngeal Cancer?
Nasopharyngeal cancer is generally considered aggressive because it can grow and spread quickly. If your cancer is detected and treated early, you can get better treatment results than most. But the problem with this type of cancer is that it is difficult to detect it at an early stage and is only diagnosed when it has reached an advanced level, which can cause complications and make it harder to treat.
How Long Can Someone Live With NPC (Nasopharyngeal Cancer)
The NPC spreads at a rate of 1.63 mm per day. Therefore, it makes it difficult to treat. According to the statistics, the general survival rate of NPC is five years for nearly 80% of individuals. However, one thing you should keep in mind is that the survival rates are based on old cases of a large number of individuals and may not apply to your specific case.
To know about your particular case and survival rate, you should visit a doctor instead of relying on the numbers you see online. The doctor can tell you everything clearly and clear all your doubts.
What Are The Complications Related To Nasopharyngeal Cancer?
There are certain complications that can cause problems while treating Nasopharyngeal cancer, which includes:
- The advanced stage of NPC can grow and enter different areas around the nasopharynx, like the brain, bones, and throat.
- NCP grows and spreads at a very fast rate and often spreads beyond the nasopharynx. The cancer cells can travel to areas like the lymph nodes in the neck. It can also travel to distant areas of the body, such as the lungs, liver, and bones.
Is It Possible To Prevent Nasophyrangeal Cancer?
There is yet to be any research that can prove that NPC can be prevented. However, the one thing you can do to reduce the risks of developing NPC is to make lifestyle changes. For instance, you can reduce or stop your habits of alcohol consumption and smoking. These two things have a direct link with NPC and can lead to other severe health issues.
Nasopharyngeal cancer is very rare among people and thus can go unnoticed till it reaches its advanced stages. So, if you have been feeling a lump in your neck, have a stuffy nose, or have a problem hearing anything from one ear for three weeks or more, you should go to a doctor. When detected at an early stage, the treatment of this cancer can show extremely positive results and have a survival rate of about 80%. There are several treatments available that can help you with this problem.
So, contact University Cancer Centers if you wish to get a proper and complete diagnosis of your symptoms and want to know the treatment plan that will best work for your condition. Our experts are highly skilled and are able to provide the most accurate diagnosis and treatment plan for you. The personalized treatments are created on the basis of your health, family history, and symptoms.
To book an appointment, call us at (713)-474-1414. We are open Monday to Friday from 10 AM- 5 PM.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the most common symptom of nasopharyngeal carcinoma?
The most common type of symptom linked with NPC is a lump in the throat or hearing loss in one ear. The lump may appear on either side of the neck and is not painful. It indicates the growth of tumor cells from the nasopharynx to the lymph nodes.
What is the best treatment for nasopharyngeal?
The most suitable treatment for NPC is radiotherapy. However, depending on the stage of cancer, you may require more than one type of treatment. For instance, a doctor can try radiation therapy with chemotherapy or biologic drugs to kill your cancer tumor.
What is the cause of nasopharyngeal cancer?
There is no specific reason that indicates the exact cause of Nasopharyngeal cancer. However, if your diet contains a lot of salt-cured meat and fish, you are at a high risk of developing NPC. Also, if you are ever diagnosed with the EBV (Epstein-Barr virus) virus, drink excess alcohol, or smoke, then also you are at a high risk of developing NPC.