Cancer 101: Cancer Explained

Key points

  • Nasopharyngeal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the nasopharynx.
  • Ethnic background and being exposed to the Epstein-Barr virus can affect the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer.
  • Signs of nasopharyngeal cancer include trouble breathing, speaking, or hearing.
  • Tests that examine the nose and throat are used to detect (find) and diagnose nasopharyngeal cancer.
  • Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

Nasopharyngeal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the nasopharynx.

The nasopharynx is the upper part of the pharynx (throat) behind the nose. The pharynx is a hollow tube about 5 inches long that starts behind the nose and ends at the top of the trachea (windpipe) and esophagus (the tube that goes from the throat to the stomach). Air and food pass through the pharynx on the way to the trachea or the esophagus. The nostrils lead into the nasopharynx. An opening on each side of the nasopharynx leads into an ear. Nasopharyngeal cancer most commonly starts in the squamous cells that line the nasopharynx.

Nasopharyngeal cancer is a type of head and neck cancer.

Ethnic background and being exposed to the Epstein-Barr virus can affect the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer.

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk. Risk factors for nasopharyngeal cancer include the following:

  • Having Chinese or Asian ancestry.
  • Being exposed to the Epstein-Barr virus: The Epstein-Barr virus has been associated with certain cancers, including nasopharyngeal cancer and some lymphomas.
  • Drinking large amounts of alcohol.

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Read how the Epstein-Barr virus may be a cause of nasopharyngeal cancer.

Nasopharyngeal Cancer Risk Factors

Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV)

The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is a member of the herpes virus family (human herpesvirus 4). EBV is found worldwide and is a common cause of viral pharyngitis, especially in young adults. EBV is transmitted from person to person and then infects human B cells, which in turn spread the infection throughout the entire reticuloendothelial system (RES, or the liver, spleen, and peripheral lymph nodes). About 50% of the population has antibodies to the virus by age 5; about 12% of susceptible adults (college-age) develop antibodies to the virus, and one half of those adults develop the disease termed mononucleosis (also termed infectious mononucleosis, mono, glandular fever, and kissing disease), which produces symptoms of lymph node, spleen, and liver swelling, fever, inflamed throat, malaise, and rash.

Signs of nasopharyngeal cancer include trouble breathing, speaking, or hearing.

These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by nasopharyngeal cancer or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:

Tests that examine the nose and throat are used to detect (find) and diagnose nasopharyngeal cancer.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as swollen lymph nodes in the neck or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
  • Neurological exam: A series of questions and tests to check the brain, spinal cord, and nerve function. The exam checks a person’s mental status, coordination, and ability to walk normally, and how well the muscles, senses, and reflexes work. This may also be called a neuro exam or a neurologic exam.
  • Biopsy: The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer. The tissue sample is removed during one of the following procedures:
    • Nasoscopy: A procedure to look inside the nose for abnormal areas. A nasoscope is inserted through the nose. A nasoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove tissue samples, which are checked under a microscope for signs of cancer.
    • Upper endoscopy: A procedure to look at the inside of the nose, throat, esophagus, stomach, and duodenum (first part of the small intestine, near the stomach). An endoscope is inserted through the mouth and into the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum. An endoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove tissue samples. The tissue samples are checked under a microscope for signs of cancer.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
  • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): A procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the body. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells do. PET scans may be used to find nasopharyngeal cancers that have spread to the bone. Sometimes a PET scan and a CT scan are done at the same time. If there is any cancer, this increases the chance that it will be found.
  • Blood chemistry studies: A procedure in which a blood sample is checked to measure the amounts of certain substances released into the blood by organs and tissues in the body. An unusual (higher or lower than normal) amount of a substance can be a sign of disease.
  • Complete blood count (CBC): A procedure in which a sample of blood is drawn and checked for the following:
    • The number of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
    • The amount of hemoglobin (the protein that carries oxygen) in the red blood cells.
    • The portion of the blood sample made up of red blood cells.
  • Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) test: A blood test to check for antibodies to the Epstein-Barr virus and DNA markers of the Epstein-Barr virus. These are found in the blood of patients who have been infected with EBV.
  • Hearing test: A procedure to check whether soft and loud sounds and low- and high-pitched sounds can be heard. Each ear is checked separately.

After nasopharyngeal cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the nasopharynx or to other parts of the body.

The process used to find out whether cancer has spread within the nasopharynx or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment. The results of the tests used to diagnose nasopharyngeal cancer are often also used to stage the disease. (See the General Information section.)

There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.

Cancer can spread through tissue, the lymph system, and the blood:

  • Tissue. The cancer spreads from where it began by growing into nearby areas.
  • Lymph system. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the lymph system. The cancer travels through the lymph vessels to other parts of the body.
  • Blood. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the blood. The cancer travels through the blood vessels to other parts of the body.

Cancer may spread from where it began to other parts of the body.

When cancer spreads to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. Cancer cells break away from where they began (the primary tumor) and travel through the lymph system or blood.

  • Lymph system. The cancer gets into the lymph system, travels through the lymph vessels, and forms a tumor (metastatic tumor) in another part of the body.
  • Blood. The cancer gets into the blood, travels through the blood vessels, and forms a tumor (metastatic tumor) in another part of the body.

The metastatic tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if nasopharyngeal cancer spreads to the lung, the cancer cells in the lung are actually nasopharyngeal cancer cells. The disease is metastatic nasopharyngeal cancer, not lung cancer.

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The following stages are used for nasopharyngeal cancer:

Stage 0 (Carcinoma in Situ)

In stage 0, abnormal cells are found in the lining of the nasopharynx. These abnormal cells may become cancer and spread into nearby normal tissue. Stage 0 is also called carcinoma in situ.

Stage I

In stage I, cancer has formed and the cancer:

  • is found in the nasopharynx only; or
  • has spread from the nasopharynx to the oropharynx and/or to the nasal cavity.

The oropharynx is the middle part of the throat and includes the soft palate, the base of the tongue, and the tonsils.

Stage II

In stage II nasopharyngeal cancer, the cancer:

  • is found in the nasopharynx only or has spread from the nasopharynx to the oropharynx and/or to the nasal cavity. Cancer has spread to one or more lymph nodes on one side of the neck and/or to lymph nodes behind the pharynx. The affected lymph nodes are 6 centimeters or smaller; or
  • is found in the parapharyngeal space. Cancer may have spread to one or more lymph nodes on one side of the neck and/or to lymph nodes behind the pharynx. The affected lymph nodes are 6 centimeters or smaller.

The oropharynx is the middle part of the throat and includes the soft palate, the base of the tongue, and the tonsils. The parapharyngeal space is a fat-filled, triangular area near the pharynx, between the base of the skull and the lower jaw.

Stage III

In stage III nasopharyngeal cancer, the cancer:

  • is found in the nasopharynx only or has spread from the nasopharynx to the oropharynx and/or to the nasal cavity. Cancer has spread to one or more lymph nodes on both sides of the neck. The affected lymph nodes are 6 centimeters or smaller; or
  • is found in the parapharyngeal space. Cancer has spread to one or more lymph nodes on both sides of the neck. The affected lymph nodes are 6 centimeters or smaller; or
  • has spread to nearby bones or sinuses. Cancer may have spread to one or more lymph nodes on one or both sides of the neck and/or to lymph nodes behind the pharynx. The affected lymph nodes are 6 centimeters or smaller.

The oropharynx is the middle part of the throat and includes the soft palate, the base of the tongue, and the tonsils. The parapharyngeal space is a fat-filled, triangular area near the pharynx, between the base of the skull and the lower jaw.

Stage IV

Stage IV nasopharyngeal cancer is divided into stages IVA, IVB, and IVC.

  • Stage IVA: Cancer has spread beyond the nasopharynx and may have spread to the cranial nerves, the hypopharynx (bottom part of the throat), areas in and around the side of the skull or jawbone, and/or the bone around the eye. Cancer may also have spread to one or more lymph nodes on one or both sides of the neck and/or to lymph nodes behind the pharynx. The affected lymph nodes are 6 centimeters or smaller.
  • Stage IVB: Cancer has spread to lymph nodes between the collarbone and the top of the shoulder and/or the affected lymph nodes are larger than 6 centimeters.
  • Stage IVC: Cancer has spread beyond nearby lymph nodes to other parts of the body.

Recurrent Nasopharyngeal Cancer

Recurrent nasopharyngeal cancer is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back in the nasopharynx or in other parts of the body.

There are different types of treatment for patients with nasopharyngeal cancer.

Different types of treatment are available for patients with nasopharyngeal cancer. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Three types of standard treatment are used:

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy:

  • External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer.

Certain ways of giving radiation therapy can help keep radiation from damaging nearby healthy tissue. These types of radiation therapy include the following:

  • Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT): IMRT is a type of 3-dimensional (3-D) radiation therapy that uses a computer to make pictures of the size and shape of the tumor. Thin beams of radiation of different intensities (strengths) are aimed at the tumor from many angles. Compared to standard radiation therapy, intensity-modulated radiation therapy may be less likely to cause dry mouth.
  • Stereotactic radiation therapy: A rigid head frame is attached to the skull to keep the head still during the radiation treatment. A machine aims radiation directly at the tumor. The total dose of radiation is divided into several smaller doses given over several days. This procedure is also called stereotactic external-beam radiation therapy and stereotaxic radiation therapy.
  • Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer.

The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated. External and internal radiation therapy are used to treat nasopharyngeal cancer.

External radiation therapy to the thyroid or the pituitary gland may change the way the thyroid gland works. A blood test to check the thyroid hormone level in the blood is done before and after therapy to make sure the thyroid gland is working properly. It is also important that a dentist check the patient’s teeth, gums, and mouth, and fix any existing problems before radiation therapy begins.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Chemotherapy may be given after radiation therapy to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after radiation therapy, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.

Surgery

Surgery is a procedure to find out whether cancer is present, to remove cancer from the body, or to repair a body part. Also called an operation. Surgery is sometimes used for nasopharyngeal cancer that does not respond to radiation therapy. If cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, the doctor may remove lymph nodes and other tissues in the neck.

Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.

For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.

Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.

Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.

Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.

Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country.

Follow-up tests may be needed.

Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.

Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.

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Treatment options by stage

Stage I Nasopharyngeal Cancer

Treatment of stage I nasopharyngeal cancer is usually radiation therapy to the tumor and lymph nodes in the neck.

Stage II Nasopharyngeal Cancer

Treatment of stage II nasopharyngeal cancer may include the following:

  • Chemotherapy given with radiation therapy, followed by more chemotherapy.
  • Radiation therapy to the tumor and lymph nodes in the neck.

Stage III Nasopharyngeal Cancer

Treatment of stage III nasopharyngeal cancer may include the following:

  • Chemotherapy given with radiation therapy, which may be followed by more chemotherapy.
  • Radiation therapy.
  • Radiation therapy followed by surgery to remove cancer -containing lymph nodes in the neck that remain or come back after radiation therapy.
  • A clinical trial of chemotherapy given before, with, or after radiation therapy.

Stage IV Nasopharyngeal Cancer

Treatment of stage IV nasopharyngeal cancer may include the following:

  • Chemotherapy given with radiation therapy, followed by more chemotherapy.
  • Radiation therapy.
  • Radiation therapy followed by surgery to remove cancer -containing lymph nodes in the neck that remain or come back after radiation therapy.
  • Chemotherapy for cancer that has metastasized (spread) to other parts of the body.
  • A clinical trial of chemotherapy given before, with, or after radiation therapy.

Treatment options for recurrent nasopharyngeal cancer

Treatment of recurrent nasopharyngeal cancer may include the following:

  • Intensity-modulated radiation therapy, stereotactic radiation therapy, or internal radiation therapy.
  • Surgery.
  • Chemotherapy.
  • A clinical trial of chemotherapy.
  • A clinical trial of stereotactic radiation therapy.

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer (whether it affects part of the nasopharynx, involves the whole nasopharynx, or has spread to other places in the body).
  • The type of nasopharyngeal cancer.
  • The size of the tumor.
  • The patient’s age and general health.

SOURCE:

United States. National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute. "Nasopharyngeal Cancer Treatment -- Patient Version." Aug. 19, 2016. <https://www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/patient/nasopharyngeal-treatment-pdq>.

Last Editorial Review: 8/19/2016

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Reviewed on 8/19/2016
References
SOURCE:

United States. National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute. "Nasopharyngeal Cancer Treatment -- Patient Version." Aug. 19, 2016. <https://www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/patient/nasopharyngeal-treatment-pdq>.

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