Can Nasopharyngeal Cancer Be Found Early?

In the United States and other countries where nasopharyngeal cancer (NPC) is not common, doctors do not recommend routine screening for this cancer. (Screening is testing for cancer in people without any symptoms.) There are no simple exams or blood tests that can find this cancer early. Still, regular check-ups and visits to the dentist are recommended for your overall health. The throat, mouth, and nose are looked at during these visits.

But in some parts of the world such as China, where NPC is more common, some people, like those who have a first-degree relative with NPC, are screened routinely for this cancer. Their blood might show evidence of infection with the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), although EBV infection is much more common than NPC. If they have evidence of an EBV infection, they will get regular exams of the nasopharynx and neck. It is still not known if this lowers the death rate from NPC. Studies are being done to find more reliable screening methods because EBV infections can be present in some people for many years before NPC is ever diagnosed. 

Sometimes NPC is found early because a person has symptoms that cause them to see a doctor. The symptoms may seem unrelated to the nasopharynx (for instance, a constant feeling of fullness in one ear). But in most people, NPC doesn't cause symptoms until it reaches an advanced stage.

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Chan KCA, Woo JKS, King A, et al. Analysis of Plasma Epstein-Barr Virus DNA to Screen for Nasopharyngeal Cancer. N Engl J Med. 2017;377(6):513-522.  

National Cancer Institute. Oral Cavity and Nasopharyngeal Cancers Screening (PDQ®)–Health Professional Version. November 3, 2021. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/hp/oral-screening-pdq on March 15, 2022.

National Cancer Institute. Oral Cavity and Nasopharyngeal Cancers Screening (PDQ®)–Patient Version.  Oct 08, 2021. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/patient/oral-screening-pdq on March 15, 2022.

Last Revised: August 1, 2022

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