Nasopharyngeal Cancer: Overview

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 01/2014

ON THIS PAGE: You will find some basic information about this disease and the parts of the body it may affect. This is the first page of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Nasopharyngeal Cancer. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen. Think of that menu as a roadmap to this full guide.

Cancer begins when normal cells in the body change and grow uncontrollably, forming a mass or growth of tissue called a tumor. A tumor can be cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor means the tumor will not spread.

Nasopharyngeal cancer may also be called nasopharyngeal carcinoma or NPC. It is a disease of the nasopharynx, which is the air passageway at the upper part of the pharynx (throat) behind the nose. The pharynx is a hollow tube approximately five inches long that starts behind the nose and ends at the top of the larynx (or voice box) and esophagus (the swallowing tube that goes from the throat to the stomach). The nostrils lead through the nasal cavity into the nasopharynx, and an opening called the Eustachian tube opening, which is located on each side of the nasopharynx, leads into the middle ear on each side.

Types of nasopharyngeal tumors

NPC is one of five main types of cancer in the head and neck region, a grouping called head and neck cancer.

There are several types of benign nasopharyngeal tumors, such as angiofibromas and hemangiomas that involve the vascular (blood-carrying) system and tumors that develop in the lining of the nasopharynx, including the minor salivary glands.

A malignant nasopharyngeal tumor is cancerous. This means it can invade and damage healthy tissues and organs in other parts of the body. The nasopharynx contains several types of tissue, and each contains several types of cells. Different cancers can develop from each kind of cell. The differences are important because they determine the seriousness of the cancer and the type of treatment needed. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), NPC is classified into three subtypes:

  • Keratinizing squamous cell carcinoma (WHO type 1)
  • Nonkeratinizing squamous cell carcinoma (WHO type 2)
  • Undifferentiated or poorly differentiated carcinoma, including lymphoepithelioma and anaplastic variants (WHO type 3). Many types of nasopharyngeal cancer contain white blood cells, and these lymphocytes give it the name of lymphoepithelioma. See more details about differentiation in the Stages section.

To continue reading this guide, use the menu on the side of your screen to select another section.