Nasopharyngeal Cancer: Symptoms and Treatment

Overview

Nasopharyngeal cancer is a disease in which malignant cells form in the tissues of the nasopharynx that is located behind the nose and above the back of the throat. It is a type of head and neck cancer. Nasopharyngeal cancer can lead to difficulty in breathing, speaking, or hearing. It is difficult to detect at early stage, because the nasopharynx isn’t easy to examine and symptoms of nasopharyngeal cancer are similar to other more common conditions. Nasopharyngeal cancer is rare in the United States, where the incidence is approximately 0.2 to 0.5 cases per 100,000 people.

Causes

The
exact cause of nasopharyngeal cancer is not yet known. However, it is believed
the cancer is strongly linked to the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). The Epstein-Barr
virus is associated with certain cancers, including nasopharyngeal cancer and
some lymphomas. But not everyone who has EBV will get nasopharyngeal cancer. The
cancer may be related to genetic material (DNA) where the virus affects the DNA
in the cells of the nasopharynx. The change in DNA causes cells to grow and
divide abnormally and thus leads to cancer.

Besides,
there are some risk factors:

  • Having Chinese or Asian ancestry
  • Alcohol and tobacco
  • Exposure to certain chemicals
  • Family history
  • Age, most common in adults between 30 and 50
  • Sex, more common in men than in women

Symptoms

In
early stage, nasopharyngeal cancer may not cause any symptoms. Noticeable symptoms
may develop when the condition progresses, which include:

  • A lump in your neck
  • Blood in your saliva
  • Face pain or numbness
  • Pain or ringing in the ear
  • Frequent ear infections
  • Hearing loss
  • Nosebleed
  • Nasal congestion
  • Trouble breathing or speaking
  • Sore throat
  • Headaches

Diagnosis

The doctor will first perform a physical exam, including a detailed look at your ears, nose, and throat. The doctor will also feel your neck. A lump in the neck may be a sign of nasopharyngeal cancer.

Besides, a flexible, lighted tube may be placed through your mouth or nose to help the doctor better view the nasopharynx. This is called a nasopharyngoscopy. It helps to check the area for abnormal growths, bleeding, or other problems.

If there are any abnormalities, the doctor may recommend a biopsy, which refers to the removal of a small amount of tissue for examination under a microscope. It can be taken during the nasopharyngoscopy.

In addition, some imaging tests and other diagnostic tests can also help detect nasopharyngeal cancer or determine if it has spread, which may include:

  • Chest X-ray
  • MRI
  • CT scan
  • PET scan
  • Ultrasound of the neck
  • EBV testing
  • Blood chemistry studies
  • Complete blood count (CBC)
  • Hearing tests

Once the cancer is confirmed, a procedure called “staging” will be done to determine the exact extent of the cancer. The stages of nasopharyngeal cancer range from I to IV. A lower numeral means the cancer is small and confined to the nasopharynx. A higher numeral means cancer has spread to other areas of the body.

Treatment

Treatment
for nasopharyngeal cancer depends on the location and the stage of the tumor,
as well as the overall health of the patient. There are three main treatment
options:

  • Radiation Therapy

Radiation
therapy uses 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.

  • Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy
uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy is given depending on the type
and stage of the cancer being treated. It may help the patient live longer when
combined with radiotherapy or biological drugs.

  • Surgery

Surgery is performed to figure out whether the cancer exists and to remove the tumor. However, surgery is not often adopted because the tumor is connected with near nerves and blood vessels. It may cause permanent damage to the eye and other nearby structures.

Keywords: Nasopharyngeal cancer

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