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Cancer Health Center

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Nasopharyngeal Cancer

Nasopharyngeal cancer is a rare type of head and neck cancer. It starts in the upper part of your throat, behind the nose. This area is called the nasopharynx.

The nasopharynx is precariously placed at the base of your skull, above the roof of your mouth. Your nostrils open into the nasopharynx. When you breathe, air flows through your nose into your throat and nasopharynx, and eventually into your lungs.


Nasopharyngeal cancer is also called nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC).

Causes of Nasopharyngeal Cancer

Scientists are not sure what exactly causes nasopharyngeal cancer. However, the cancer has been strongly linked to the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).

Although EBV infection is common, not everyone who has EBV will get nasopharyngeal cancer. In the U.S., most people who have had an EBV infection never have long-term problems. That's because the body's immune system destroys the virus.

But sometimes, genetic material (DNA) from the virus mixes with the DNA in the cells of the nasopharynx. The change in DNA causes cells to grow and divide abnormally, causing cancer. This is rare.

The chance that EBV will fuel cancer growth goes up if you eat a diet rich in salt-cured fish and meat. That type of diet is common in Asia, particularly China. Scientists believe that chemicals in such foods further damage the DNA in cells.

Who Gets Nasopharyngeal Cancer?

Only about seven in 1 million people in North America get this type of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

The cancer is most common in southeast China. It is also much more common in:

  • Other parts of Asia
  • North Africa
  • Inuit populations of Alaska and Canada
  • Chinese and Hmong immigrant groups in the U.S.

In the U.S., nasopharyngeal cancer has also been seen in African-Americans, Hispanics, and white people.

You are more likely to get this type of cancer if you:

  • Are male
  • Younger than 55
  • Eat a diet rich in salt-cured fish and meats
  • Have a family history of nasopharyngeal cancer
  • Have certain genes linked to cancer development
  • Have come in contact with EBV

Some, but not all, studies have found a higher risk of nasopharyngeal cancer in people who:

  • Smoke
  • Drink a lot of alcohol
  • Work around wood dust or a chemical called formaldehyde
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