Nasopharyngeal cancer

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Cancerous tumours of the nasopharynx

A cancerous tumour of the nasopharynx can grow into and destroy nearby tissue. It can also spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. Cancerous tumours are also called malignant tumours.

Nasopharyngeal carcinoma

Nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC) is the most common type of nasopharyngeal cancer. There are 3 main types of NPC. They look different under the microscope but all start in the epithelial cells that line the surface of the nasopharynx.

Non-keratinizing squamous cell carcinoma is linked with the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). It accounts for 60% of NPC in adults. It is an aggressive cancer that tends to spread quickly to surrounding tissues and lymph nodes.

Keratinizing squamous cell carcinoma is less common than non-keratinizing squamous cell carcinoma. It usually develops in people over the age of 40 and is associated with a history of smoking and drinking alcohol. It is not linked with EBV.

Basaloid squamous cell carcinoma of the nasopharynx is a rare, aggressive type of NPC. It is similar to basaloid squamous cell carcinomas of other areas of the head and neck.

Rare nasopharyngeal tumours

Other types of nasopharyngeal tumour are uncommon.

Nasopharyngeal papillary adenocarcinoma is a low-grade cancer of the nasopharynx. This means that the cancer cells look and act like normal cells and the tumour grows slowly. It grows into the space in the nasopharynxand often blocks the nasal passages.

Minor salivary gland carcinoma is a cancer of the very small salivary glands in the lining of the nasopharynx.

Sarcoma is a cancer that starts in the connective tissues of the nasopharynx, such as bone, cartilage, fat, muscle or blood vessels.

Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)

A type of herpes virus that causes mononucleosis (a highly infectious disease that causes fever, fatigue, malaise and sore throat).

Epstein-Barr virus is associated with an increased risk of certain cancers, including Burkitt lymphoma.

Also called Human herpesvirus 4 (HHV-4).


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Some cancers, such as thyroid and testicular, have survival rates of over 90%. Other cancers, such as pancreatic, brain and esophageal, continue to have very low survival rates.

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