What is nasopharyngeal carcinoma?

By Sandy Wong, MD and Richard Wein, MD, Tufts Medical Center

Nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC) is a type of cancer that arises from the back of the nasal cavity, above the back of the throat. This type of cancer is common in southern China (including Hong Kong and Guangdong) and Southeast Asia (including Vietnam). It is relatively uncommon in the United States but for people from the places listed above, it can be 50 times more common.

This cancer can be caused by infection with the Epstein-Barr virus. However, environmental factors also play an important role such as the high intake of salt cured foods and fermented foods. Other risk factors include alcohol and tobacco usage. It is thought that the consumption of these foods releases chemicals called nitrosamines. These chemicals are breathed in through the nose and leads to the formation of these cancers. Lastly genetics could play a role since it can run in families.

The most common symptom in patients with this type of cancer is a lump or growth in the neck. Other symptoms include ear pain, changes in hearing, multiple bloody noses, stuffy nose or difficulty swallowing. However because this cancer frequently originates from the very back of the nasal cavity, patients might remain without symptoms for a long period of time until the cancer has spread to the neck.

This type of cancer is commonly diagnosed by an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor. The doctor will ask about symptoms associated with the cancer and perform an exam of the head and neck. He might need to look into the nose with a small camera. This exam takes 20 seconds to do and is done right in the clinic.

People with highest risk of NPC can be screened to detect the cancer at an early stage. Detection of the cancer early allows for better response to treatment and higher chances of a cure.

At Tufts Medical Center, we recognize that this is an important health issue in the Boston Asian community. We offer free NPC screenings with the next one on Tuesday, May 13 at 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Please call (617) 636-2887 for scheduling. For Chinese-speaking patients, please call the Tufts Asian Access Line at (617) 636-4579.

Richard Wein is an ENT doctor at Tufts Medical Center who specializes in head and neck cancers including nasopharyngeal carcinoma. Sandy Wong is a clinical fellow in the department of hematology/oncology at Tufts Medical Center.


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