Can Nasopharyngeal Cancer Be Found Early?

In the United States and other countries where nasopharyngeal cancer (NPC) is fairly rare, 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. 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 are being screened routinely for this cancer. They're first selected because their blood shows evidence of infection with the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), although EBV infection is much more common than NPC. They get regular exams of the nasopharynx and neck. This approach can also be used in families when one member has developed NPC. It still isn’t known if this lowers the death rate from NPC.

Sometimes NPC is found early because symptoms cause a person 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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Amerian Society of Clinical Oncology. Nasopharyngeal Cancer: Screening. 07/2017. Accessed at www.cancer.net/cancer-types/nasopharyngeal-cancer/screening on April 21, 2018.

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.  

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

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