September 19, 2023
Nasopharyngeal cancer, also known as nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC), is a rare form of head and neck cancer. It originates from the nasopharynx - the upper part of the throat located behind the nose and above the back of the throat. The nasopharynx is where the nasal passages and the throat meet.
In this blog, we will share a comprehensive understanding of nasopharyngeal cancer symptoms, causes, and treatment options. Read on to learn more.
Although the exact causes of nasopharyngeal cancer remain unclear to experts, the following factors can increase the likelihood of developing this condition:
The presence of this virus is prevalent in individuals with nasopharyngeal cancer. The Epstein–Barr virus is known for causing mononucleosis – a viral infection that often presents with symptoms such as chronic fatigue, sore throat, fever, and swollen lymph nodes. While the connection between EBV and cancer is widely acknowledged, not everyone infected with EBV will necessarily develop this cancer.
Individuals who often consume salt-cured meat and fish are at an elevated risk of this disease.
Smoking tobacco, inhaling secondhand smoke, or excessive alcohol consumption can heighten the risk.
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Although nasopharyngeal cancer can occur at any age, most cases are reported among individuals aged 30 to 50.
Nasopharyngeal cancer is more prevalent in individuals residing in regions like Southeast Asia, southern China, and northern Africa.
Men are roughly two to three times more susceptible to this cancer than women.
If a family member has had nasopharyngeal cancer, the likelihood of developing the condition increases.
Individuals who have these risk factors may or may not develop nasopharyngeal cancer in their lifetime. It is wise to take precautions and consult a healthcare provider to get detailed guidance on how to minimize the risk.
The majority of individuals diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer report the presence of a neck lump or mass. These lumps are not usually tender or painful and they may be present on both sides of the neck towards the rear.
Apart from the neck lump or mass, individuals may also experience a few additional symptoms, which are as follows:
Hearing impairment, tinnitus, discomfort, or a sensation of fullness in the ear (particularly on one side)
Recurrent ear infections
Nasal congestion or a blocked nose
Facial discomfort or numbness
Difficulty in opening the mouth
Challenges in breathing or speaking
Since ear infections are a common health concern for children, individuals should consult an expert to evaluate the nasopharynx, especially if an upper respiratory tract infection (like a "cold") is not involved.
Many of the nasopharyngeal cancer symptoms are also associated with other less severe conditions. Therefore, those who are experiencing any of these issues should seek immediate medical attention to identify and address the underlying cause.
Healthcare providers do not consider surgery as the primary course of treatment for nasopharyngeal cancer (NPC) because the nasopharynx is a hard place to operate on. Surgery is mostly recommended in cases where oncologists need to remove lymph nodes in the neck that haven’t responded to other treatments.
The most common surgical procedure for nasopharyngeal cancer is endoscopic surgery. This approach is employed to entirely remove specific nasopharyngeal tumors in individuals with early-stage cancers or for cases where cancer has recurred following the initial treatment.
Cancers originating in the nasopharynx frequently metastasize into the neck lymph nodes. If residual cancer persists after radiation therapy and chemotherapy, surgeons may perform a procedure called neck dissection to eliminate the affected lymph nodes.
This traditional cancer treatment procedure employs high-energy X-rays or particles to eliminate cancer cells or impede their growth rate. Both external beam radiation therapy and brachytherapy are recommended for nasopharyngeal cancer treatment.
Given the effectiveness of radiation therapy for most nasopharyngeal cancers, oncologists integrate it into the initial treatment plan when the NPC has not extended beyond the head and neck region. Radiation therapy also works as the primary treatment alongside chemotherapy for sizable cancers and those involving neck lymph nodes. In more advanced cases, oncologists may recommend radiation therapy after chemotherapy to treat infiltrated nearby structures or affected neck lymph nodes.
This treatment process entails the utilization of anti-cancer medications administered via intravenous injection (IV) or oral consumption to combat cancer. Oncologists may recommend chemotherapy as the initial treatment before chemoradiation to extend the survival of individuals with more advanced cases of NPC. In some cases, adjuvant chemotherapy is administered after radiation or chemoradiation.
It involves using medications that specifically target certain proteins in cancer cells responsible for their growth, spread, and survival. Unlike chemotherapy, many of these drugs are available in pill form and can target the affected cells more precisely.
Certain targeted therapy drugs, such as monoclonal antibodies, exert multi-faceted control over cancer cells and may also qualify as immunotherapy due to their immune system-enhancing effects.
This approach typically targets specific immune system proteins to increase immune response, often with milder side effects compared to chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Discover more: How to Deal with Chemotherapy Side Effects
Certain immunotherapy medications, like monoclonal antibodies, can operate through multiple mechanisms to control cancer cells. For nasopharyngeal cancer, immune checkpoint inhibitors play a crucial role since they prevent the immune system from mistakenly attacking healthy cells.
After undergoing treatment for nasopharyngeal cancer, follow-up care is crucial to reduce the risk of cancer recurrence and the potential development of new cancers. Individuals should discuss with their medical team, who will determine the appropriate tests and frequency based on the type, stage, treatment, and how individuals respond to the initial treatment. Individuals who have undergone nasopharyngeal cancer treatment are at a high risk of developing the following secondary cancer:
Reporting any new symptoms immediately is vital for early detection of recurrent cancer.
Although it is not always possible to prevent nasopharyngeal cancer because of certain genetic factors, the following measures can help reduce the risk:
Adopt a healthy lifestyle, including a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables, regular physical activity, and maintaining a healthy weight.
Quit smoking and limit alcohol consumption.
Limit your intake of salt-cured and smoked foods.
Get regular medical check-ups and screenings done as recommended by a healthcare provider.
Individuals working in environments with potential carcinogens or harmful substances should take appropriate safety measures to reduce the risk of cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, the 5-year survival rate for localized nasopharyngeal cancer is 82%. Therefore, it is crucial to report any symptoms to a healthcare provider at the earliest to get more effective results from the treatment.
For any questions or concerns about nasopharyngeal cancer or any other type of head and neck cancer, contact ACTC, a cancer center in Florida. We are one of the top cancer treatment centers offering personalized cancer treatment plans under the supervision of a multidisciplinary team of healthcare professionals. Contact us to schedule an appointment now!