What Is Nasopharyngeal Cancer?

Nasopharyngeal cancer is a type of head and neck cancer. It starts in the nasopharynx, the upper part of the throat behind the nose and near the base of skull. Cancer starts when cells begin to grow out of control. Cells in nearly any part of the body can become cancer, and can spread to other areas. (To learn more about how cancers start and spread, see What Is Cancer?)

Where nasopharyngeal cancer forms

The nasopharynx is the upper part of the throat (pharynx) that lies behind the nose. It's a box-like chamber about 1½ inches on each edge. It lies just above the soft part of the roof of the mouth (soft palate) and just in back of the nasal passages.

The nasopharynx serves as a passageway for air traveling from the nose to the throat (and then on to the lungs).

illustration showing a side view of the head and location of the nasopharynx in relation to the pharyngeal tonsils, soft palate, oropharynx, nasal cavity, mouth, tongue and hard palate

Types of nasopharyngeal tumors

Several types of tumors can develop in the nasopharynx. Some of these tumors are benign (not cancer), but others are malignant (cancer). It's important to talk with your doctor about what type of tumor you might have.

Nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC)

Most nasopharyngeal cancers are nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC). It is by far the most common cancer in the nasopharynx. Carcinoma is cancer that starts in the cells that line the internal and external surfaces of the body (called epithelial cells).

There are 3 types of NPC. They all start from epithelial sells that line the nasopharynx, but the cells of each type look different under a microscope:

  • Non-keratinizing undifferentiated carcinoma (this is the most common type of NPC in the US.)
  • Non-keratinizing differentiated carcinoma
  • Keratinizing squamous cell carcinoma

The treatment is the same for all types of NPC. The non-keratinizing types tend to respond better to treatment, but the stage of the cancer – how far it has grown and spread – is often more important than the type in predicting a person's outlook (prognosis).

Many NPCs also contain lots of immune system cells, especially white blood cells called lymphocytes. The term lymphoepithelioma is sometimes used to describe an undifferentiated NPC with many lymphocytes among the cancer cells. The presence of these cells does not usually affect the choice of treatment options. But they may help researchers develop new treatments, because they may be a clue to how the body attempts to fight the tumor. (See What's New in Nasopharyngeal Cancer Research?)

Other cancers in the nasopharynx

Other types of cancers can also be found in the nasopharynx:

Benign nasopharyngeal tumors

Benign nasopharyngeal tumors are fairly rare and tend to develop in children and young adults. These tumors do not spread to other parts of the body and are usually not life-threatening. They include tumors or malformations of the vascular (blood-carrying) system, such as angiofibromas and hemangiomas, and benign tumors of minor salivary glands within the nasopharynx.

Benign nasopharyngeal tumors don't always need treatment. When they do, the treatment is not the same as for nasopharyngeal cancer. If you have a benign tumor, talk to your doctor about what to expect.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master's-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Amerian Society of Clinical Oncology. Nasopharyngeal Cancer: Introduction. 07/2016. Accessed at www.cancer.net/cancer-types/nasopharyngeal-cancer/introduction on April 19, 2018.

National Cancer Institute. Nasopharyngeal Cancer Treatment (Adult) (PDQ®)–Patient Version. March 1, 2018. Accessed at www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/patient/adult/nasopharyngeal-treatment-pdq on April 19, 2018.

Sinha S, Bhimji SS. Cancer, Nasopharynx. [Updated 2017 Oct 5]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2018 Jan-. Accessed at www-ncbi-nlm-nih-gov.proxy.library.emory.edu/books/NBK459256/ on April 19, 2018.

Last Medical Review: September 24, 2018 Last Revised: September 24, 2018

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