A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s chance of developing cancer. Although risk factors often influence the development of cancer, most do not directly cause cancer. Some people with several risk factors never develop cancer, while others with no known risk factors do. However, knowing your risk factors and talking about them with your doctor may help you make more informed lifestyle and health care choices.
Two risk factors greatly increase the risk of NPC:
Tobacco use. Use of tobacco (including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, and snuff) is the single greatest risk factor for head and neck cancer. Smokers with NPC are most likely to have the squamous cell type.
Alcohol. Frequent and heavy consumption of alcohol is a risk factor for head and neck cancer.
Eighty-five percent (85%) of head and neck cancer is linked to tobacco use. Using alcohol and tobacco together increases this risk even more, although the influence of this in NPC is less than for other head and neck cancers. Recent research suggests that people who have used marijuana may be at higher risk for head and neck cancer. Secondhand smoke may also increase a person’s risk of head and neck cancer.
Other factors that can raise a person’s risk of NPC include the following:
Geography/ancestry. NPC is most common in people who live in Southeast China and Hong Kong. When people move away from high-risk areas of the world to countries where NPC is less common, subsequent generations of their family have a gradual reduction in their inherited risk of NPC.
Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). Exposure to EBV, which is more commonly known as the virus that causes mononucleosis (or “mono”), plays a role in causing nasopharyngeal cancer to develop.
Gender. Men are two times more likely than women to develop NPC.
Age. The risk of NPC increases as a person gets older. However, about half of the people with nasopharyngeal cancer in the United States are younger than 55. A person of any age can be diagnosed with NPC.
Diet. Eating large amounts of salt-cured fish and meats on a regular basis increase the risk of NPC.
Environmental exposure. Extensive exposure to dust and smoke may increase the risk of NPC.
Although some of the risk factors of NPC cannot be controlled, such as age, several can be avoided by making lifestyle changes. Stopping the use of all tobacco products is the most important thing a person can do to reduce the risk of NPC, even for people who have been smoking for many years.