Nasopharyngeal Cancer Treatment (Adult) (PDQ®)–Health Professional Version

General Information About Nasopharyngeal Cancer


The nasopharynx has a cuboidal shape. The lateral walls are formed by the eustachian tube and the fossa of Rosenmuller. The roof, sloping downward from anterior to posterior, is bordered by the pharyngeal hypophysis, pharyngeal tonsil, and pharyngeal bursa with the base of the skull above. Anteriorly, the nasopharynx abuts the posterior choanae and nasal cavity, and the posterior boundary is formed by the muscles of the posterior pharyngeal wall. Inferiorly, the nasopharynx ends at an imaginary horizontal line formed by the upper surface of the soft palate and the posterior pharyngeal wall.

Risk Factors

Unlike other squamous cell cancers of the head and neck, nasopharyngeal cancer does not appear to be linked to excess use of tobacco or moderate alcohol intake (up to 15 drinks a week). Factors thought to predispose to this tumor include the following:

  • Chinese (or Asian) ancestry.[1]
  • Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) exposure.
  • Unknown factors that result in very rare familial clusters.[2]
  • Heavy alcohol intake.[3]

Signs and Symptoms

Symptoms and signs at presentation include the following:

  • Painless, enlarged lymph nodes in the neck (present in approximately 75% of patients and often bilateral and posterior).
  • Nasal obstruction.
  • Epistaxis.
  • Diminished hearing.
  • Tinnitus.
  • Recurrent otitis media.
  • Cranial nerve dysfunction (usually II–VI or IX–XII).
  • Sore throat.
  • Headache.

In the patient who presents with only cervical adenopathy, the finding of EBV genomic material in the tissue after amplification of DNA with the polymerase chain reaction lends strong evidence for a nasopharyngeal primary tumor, and a concerted search should be conducted in that area.[4]

Diagnostic Tests

Diagnosis is made by biopsy of the nasopharyngeal mass. Workup includes the following:[5]

  • Careful visual examination (by fiberoptic endoscopic examination or examination under anesthesia [EUA]).
  • Documentation of the size and location of the tumor and neck nodes.
  • Evaluation of cranial nerve function including neuro-ophthalmological evaluation and audiological evaluation.
  • Computed tomographic (CT) scan or positron emission tomography (PET)-CT scan.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to evaluate skull base invasion.
  • Hemogram.
  • Chemistry panel.
  • EBV titers.

Any clinical or laboratory suggestion of distant metastasis may prompt further evaluation of other sites. Careful dental and oral hygiene evaluation and therapy is particularly important prior to initiation of radiation treatment. MRI is often more helpful than CT scans in assessing skull base involvement and in defining the extent of abnormalities detected.[5-7]


Major prognostic factors adversely influencing outcome of treatment include the following:[8]

  • Large tumor size.[9][Level of evidence: 3iiiA]
  • A higher tumor (T) stage.
  • The presence of involved neck nodes.

Other factors linked to diminished survival that were present in some, but not all, studies include the following:

  • Age.
  • World Health Organization (WHO) grade I.
  • Long interval between biopsy and initiation of radiation therapy.
  • Diminished immune function at diagnosis.
  • Incomplete excision of involved neck nodes.
  • Pregnancy during treatment.
  • Locoregional relapse.
  • Certain EBV antibody titer patterns.

Small cancers of the nasopharynx are highly curable by radiation therapy, and patients with these small cancers have shown survival rates of 80% to 90%.[10]

Moderately advanced lesions without clinical evidence of spread to cervical lymph nodes are often curable, and patients with these lesions have shown survival rates of 50% to 70%.


Follow-up for patients includes the following:

  • Routine periodic examination of the original tumor site and neck.
  • CT or PET-CT scan.
  • MRI scan.
  • Blood work.
  • EBV titers.

Monitoring of patients should include the following:

  • Surveillance of thyroid and pituitary function.
  • Dental and oral hygiene.
  • Jaw exercises to avoid trismus.
  • Evaluation of cranial nerve function, especially as it relates to vision and hearing.
  • Evaluation of systemic complaints to identify distant metastasis.

Although most recurrences occur within 5 years of diagnosis, relapse can be seen at longer intervals. The incidence of second primary malignancies is less than after treatment of tumors at other head and neck sites.[11]

Poorly differentiated squamous cell cancer has been associated with EBV antibodies.[4,12] High-titer antibodies to virus capsid antigen and early antigen, especially of high IgA class, or high titers that persist after therapy, have been associated with a poorer prognosis.[13] This finding remains under evaluation.

Tumors of many histologies can occur in the nasopharynx, but this discussion, like the American Joint Committee on Cancer nasopharynx staging, refers exclusively to WHO grade I-, II-, and III-type nasopharyngeal carcinoma.

  1. Chien YC, Chen JY, Liu MY, et al.: Serologic markers of Epstein-Barr virus infection and nasopharyngeal carcinoma in Taiwanese men. N Engl J Med 345 (26): 1877-82, 2001. [PUBMED Abstract]
  2. Decker J, Goldstein JC: Risk factors in head and neck cancer. N Engl J Med 306 (19): 1151-5, 1982. [PUBMED Abstract]
  3. Chen L, Gallicchio L, Boyd-Lindsley K, et al.: Alcohol consumption and the risk of nasopharyngeal carcinoma: a systematic review. Nutr Cancer 61 (1): 1-15, 2009. [PUBMED Abstract]
  4. Feinmesser R, Miyazaki I, Cheung R, et al.: Diagnosis of nasopharyngeal carcinoma by DNA amplification of tissue obtained by fine-needle aspiration. N Engl J Med 326 (1): 17-21, 1992. [PUBMED Abstract]
  5. Cummings CW, Fredrickson JM, Harker LA, et al.: Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery. Saint Louis, Mo: Mosby-Year Book, Inc., 1998.
  6. Mendenhall WM, Werning JW, Pfister DG: Treatment of head and neck cancer. In: DeVita VT Jr, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA: Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2011, pp 729-80.
  7. Laramore GE, ed.: Radiation Therapy of Head and Neck Cancer. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1989.
  8. Sanguineti G, Geara FB, Garden AS, et al.: Carcinoma of the nasopharynx treated by radiotherapy alone: determinants of local and regional control. Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys 37 (5): 985-96, 1997. [PUBMED Abstract]
  9. Lee CC, Huang TT, Lee MS, et al.: Clinical application of tumor volume in advanced nasopharyngeal carcinoma to predict outcome. Radiat Oncol 5: 20, 2010. [PUBMED Abstract]
  10. Bailet JW, Mark RJ, Abemayor E, et al.: Nasopharyngeal carcinoma: treatment results with primary radiation therapy. Laryngoscope 102 (9): 965-72, 1992. [PUBMED Abstract]
  11. Cooper JS, Scott C, Marcial V, et al.: The relationship of nasopharyngeal carcinomas and second independent malignancies based on the Radiation Therapy Oncology Group experience. Cancer 67 (6): 1673-7, 1991. [PUBMED Abstract]
  12. Neel HB 3rd, Pearson GR, Taylor WF: Antibodies to Epstein-Barr virus in patients with nasopharyngeal carcinoma and in comparison groups. Ann Otol Rhinol Laryngol 93 (5 Pt 1): 477-82, 1984 Sep-Oct. [PUBMED Abstract]
  13. Lin JC, Chen KY, Wang WY, et al.: Detection of Epstein-Barr virus DNA the peripheral-blood cells of patients with nasopharyngeal carcinoma: relationship to distant metastasis and survival. J Clin Oncol 19 (10): 2607-15, 2001. [PUBMED Abstract]