Nasopharyngeal Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)

As a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, a core part of our mission is to educate patients and the community about cancer. The following summary is trusted information from the NCI.

General Information About Nasopharyngeal Cancer

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.

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Risk factors may include the following:

  • Chinese or Asian ancestry.
  • Exposure 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.

These and other symptoms may be caused by nasopharyngeal cancer. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:

  • A lump in the nose or neck.
  • A sore throat.
  • Trouble breathing or speaking.
  • Nosebleeds.
  • Trouble hearing.
  • Pain or ringing in the ear.
  • Headaches.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam of the throat: An exam in which the doctor feels for swollen lymph nodes in the neck and looks down the throat with a small, long-handled mirror to check for abnormal areas.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Head and chest x-rays: An x-ray of the skull and organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
  • 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.
  • Laboratory tests: Medical procedures that test samples of tissue, blood, urine, or other substances in the body. These tests help to diagnose disease, plan and check treatment, or monitor the disease over time.
  • 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 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.

Stages of Nasopharyngeal Cancer

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.

The three ways that cancer spreads in the body are:

  • Through tissue. Cancer invades the surrounding normal tissue.
  • Through the lymph system. Cancer invades the lymph system and travels through the lymph vessels to other places in the body.
  • Through the blood. Cancer invades the veins and capillaries and travels through the blood to other places in the body.

When cancer cells break away from the primary (original) tumor and travel through the lymph or blood to other places in the body, another (secondary) tumor may form. This process is called metastasis. The secondary (metastatic) tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the bones, the cancer cells in the bones are actually breast cancer cells. The disease is metastatic breast cancer, not bone cancer.

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.

In stage I, cancer has formed and the cancer:

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

Pea, peanut, walnut, and lime show tumor sizes.

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.

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

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.

Treatment Option Overview

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.

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. 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 radiation therapy to the thyroid or the pituitary gland may change the way the thyroid gland works. The doctor may test the thyroid gland before and after therapy to make sure it 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 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.

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.

This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Biologic therapy is a treatment that uses the patient's immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body's natural defenses against cancer. This type of cancer treatment is also called biotherapy or immunotherapy.

Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) is a type of 3-dimensional radiation therapy that uses computer-generated images to show the size and shape of the tumor. Compared to standard radiation therapy, intensity-modulated radiation therapy may be less likely to cause xerostomia (dry mouth). This may improve quality of life.

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.

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. See the Treatment Options section that follows for links to current treatment clinical trials. These have been retrieved from NCI's listing of clinical trials.

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. This is sometimes called re-staging.

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.

Treatment Options by Stage

A link to a list of current clinical trials is included for each treatment section. For some types or stages of cancer, there may not be any trials listed. Check with your doctor for clinical trials that are not listed here but may be right for you.

Stage I Nasopharyngeal Cancer

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

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage I nasopharyngeal cancer. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Stage II Nasopharyngeal Cancer

Treatment of stage II nasopharyngeal cancer may include the following:

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage II nasopharyngeal cancer. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Stage III Nasopharyngeal Cancer

Treatment of stage III nasopharyngeal cancer may include the following:

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage III nasopharyngeal cancer. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Stage IV Nasopharyngeal Cancer

Treatment of stage IV nasopharyngeal cancer may include the following:

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage IV nasopharyngeal cancer. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Treatment Options for Recurrent Nasopharyngeal Cancer

Treatment of recurrent nasopharyngeal cancer may include the following:

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with recurrent nasopharyngeal cancer. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

To Learn More About Nasopharyngeal Cancer

For more information from the National Cancer Institute about nasopharyngeal cancer, see the following:

For more childhood cancer information and other general cancer resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:



Cancer Care Services

Clinical Trials