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Cancer of the nasopharynx

AGE  Most common between the ages of 50 and 60GENDER  Not a significant factor
LIFESTYLE  Smoking, alcohol abuse, eating foods containing certain chemicals, and inhaling some dusts are risk factorsGENETICS  More common in Chinese people

This disorder is a cancerous growth in the nasopharynx, the passage connecting the back of the nose to the throat.

Cancer of the nasopharynx
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Cancer of the nasopharynx is a rare condition in which a tumour originates in the nasopharynx, the passage connecting the nasal cavity to the throat. This type of cancer occurs most frequently in Chinese people. The precise reason for this is unknown, but it may involve genetic factors or certain chemicals present in foods such as salted fish and fermented dishes.

Other factors that may increase the risk of cancer of the nasopharynx include smoking or using snuff, alcohol abuse, and a viral infection, especially with the Epstein-Barr virus (see Infectious mononucleosis). People who inhale hardwood dust or nickel dust over a long period may also be at risk. If cancer of the nasopharynx is diagnosed early, it is usually easily treated. However, if the cancer is not diagnosed at an early stage, it may spread to the lymph nodes of the neck and to other parts of the body and in some cases can be fatal.

What are the symptoms of cancer of the nasopharynx?

Initially, cancer of the nasopharynx may not cause symptoms and may not be noticed until the tumour spreads to a lymph node, causing a painless swelling in the neck. If symptoms do develop, they may include:

  • Facial pain and swelling.
  • Earache and loss of hearing.
  • Loss of sense of smell.
  • Repeated nosebleeds.
  • Blocked or runny nose, usually affecting one nostril only.
  • Discomfort on swallowing.
  • Repeated infection and inflammation of the sinuses (see Sinusitis).

Left untreated, the cancer may spread to other areas such as nearby nerves, causing your voice to change or one side of your face to become paralysed.

What might be done?

You may have endoscopy of the nose and throat. If a tumour is found, you may have a biopsy, in which a sample of tissue is removed from the growth and examined for signs of cancer. You may have CT scanning or MRI to assess the size of the tumour and to see if the cancer has spread.

If cancer is diagnosed early, a cure is possible. The usual treatment is radiotherapy, although if the lymph nodes in the neck are affected, surgery may be required. Both procedures may also be used to relieve symptoms. The outlook depends on how far the cancer has advanced. If treated early, a third of people survive for more than 5 years.

Posted 09.09.2010

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