Nasopharyngeal Cancer: Introduction

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 01/2019

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. Use the menu to see other pages. Think of that menu as a roadmap for this complete guide.

Cancer begins when healthy cells in the body change and grow out of control, 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 grow and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor means the tumor can grow but will not spread.

There are several types of benign nasopharyngeal tumors, including:

  • Angiofibromas and hemangiomas that involve the vascular, or blood-carrying, system.

  • Tumors that develop in the lining of the nasopharynx, including the minor salivary glands.

About nasopharyngeal cancer

Nasopharyngeal cancer may also be called nasopharyngeal carcinoma or NPC. It is 1 of 5 main types of cancer in the head and neck region, a grouping called head and neck cancer.

NPC is a disease of the nasopharynx, which is the air passageway at the upper part of the pharynx, or throat, behind the nose. The nostrils lead through the nasal cavity into the nasopharynx, and an opening called the Eustachian tube, which is located on each side of the nasopharynx, leads into the middle ear on each side (see Medical Illustrations).

The nasopharynx contains several types of tissue, and each tissue type contains several types of cells. Different cancers can develop from each kind of cell. For example, many types of NPC contain white blood cells, called lymphocytes. The cancer is named after these lymphocytes: lymphoepithelioma. These differences are important because they determine the seriousness of the cancer and the type of treatment needed.

Subtypes of NPC

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), NPC is classified into 3 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)

Recently, doctors have found that other factors, such as the presence of Epstein-Barr virus (EBV; see Risk Factors), can be more important for determining the seriousness of NPC and how to treat it. This means that the WHO types are being used less often in the treatment of NPC.

Looking for More of an Introduction?

If you would like more of an introduction, explore these related items. Please note that these links will take you to other sections on Cancer.Net:

  • ASCO Answers Fact Sheet: Read a 1-page fact sheet that offers an introduction to head and neck cancer. This free fact sheet is available as a PDF, so it is easy to print out. This fact sheet is also available in Romanian

  • Cancer.Net Blog: Read an ASCO expert’s opinion about what newly diagnosed patients should know about head and neck cancer.

  • Cancer.Net Patient Education Video: View a short video led by an ASCO expert in head and neck cancers that provides basic information and areas of research.

The next section in this guide is Statistics. It helps explain the number of people who are diagnosed with NPC and general survival rates. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.