Please note: This information was current at the time of publication. But medical information is always changing, and some information given here may be out of date. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit, the AAFP patient education website.

Information from Your Family Doctor

Nasopharyngeal Cancer


Am Fam Physician. 2001 May 1;63(9):1785.

What is nasopharyngeal cancer?

Nasopharyngeal (say: nay-zo-fair-in-gee-al) cancer is a tumor that develops in the nasopharynx (say: nay-zo-fair-inks). The nasopharynx is the area where the back part of your nose opens into your upper throat. This is also where tubes from your ears open into your throat.

Who might get nasopharyngeal cancer?

Nasopharyngeal cancer is rare. You are most likely to get this cancer if you or your ancestors came from southern China, particularly Canton (now called Guangzhou) or Hong Kong.

You are also more likely to get this cancer if you are from a country in Southeast Asia, like Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia or Thailand.

What causes nasopharyngeal cancer?

One possible cause is eating salt-preserved foods (like fish, eggs, leafy vegetables and roots) during early childhood. Another possible cause is the Epstein-Barr virus. This is the same virus that causes infectious mononucleosis, which is called “mono.” You may also inherit a tendency to get nasopharyngeal cancer.

What are some signs of nasopharyngeal cancer?

If you have nasopharyngeal cancer, you might first notice a lump in your neck. You might have trouble hearing in one ear, or you might have nosebleeds, headaches, ringing in one or both ears, or you might feel a change in sensation over one side of your face.

How can my doctor tell if I have nasopharyngeal cancer?

Your doctor might use endoscopy (say: in-dos-ko-pee) to try to see the cancer. For this exam, a thin tube with a small camera on the end is put into your nose. This lets your doctor get a closer look at the cancer tumor.

During endoscopy, your doctor might take a small piece from the tumor (a biopsy sample). The piece of tumor is then sent to a lab where it is looked at under a microscope.

Your doctor might also send you to have MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). This exam is done to see how big the tumor is.

How is nasopharyngeal cancer treated?

Many people with nasopharyngeal cancer can live normal lives. Cure is more likely if the cancer has not spread to other parts of the body. Radiation is quite successful in treating cancer in the nasopharynx. You might also need to have chemotherapy (medicines used to treat cancer).

Radiation and chemotherapy can make you feel tired and sick to your stomach. You also might have headaches for a while after radiation treatment.

Where can I get more information about nasopharyngeal cancer?

You can get more information about this cancer by calling the American Cancer Society (ACS) at 1-800-227-2345. You can also visit the ACS Web site:

This handout is provided to you by your family doctor and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Other health-related information is available from the AAFP online at

This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.


Copyright © 2001 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
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