Nasopharyngeal Cancer: Introduction

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 11/2020

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.

About nasopharyngeal cancer

Nasopharyngeal cancer is a type of head and neck cancer. It is sometimes called nasopharyngeal carcinoma or NPC.

NPC is a disease of the nasopharynx, which is the air passage between the nose and the throat and lungs. It is located behind the nasal cavity and above the soft palate of the mouth. An opening on either side of the nasopharynx, called the Eustachian tube, leads into the middle ear on each side (see Medical Illustrations).

The nasopharynx contains several types of tissue. Each tissue type contains several types of cells and different cancers can develop from each kind of cell. For example, many types of NPC contain white blood cells, called lymphocytes. Therefore, the cancer is named after these lymphocytes and called lymphoepithelioma. The type of cell involved and other factors 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.

  • 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.