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Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Nasopharyngeal cancer is cancer that forms in the nasopharynx, which is the upper part of the throat behind the nose. Among the types of cancer that attack the head and neck, this condition is one of the most common. Check out an explanation of the symptoms, causes, and how to treat it below.

Nasopharyngeal Cancer: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Symptoms of Nasopharyngeal Cancer

Nasopharyngeal cancer is a type of cancer which is quite difficult to detect because its characteristics are similar to other health conditions. Symptoms often appear when it has entered an advanced stage.

Here are some common symptoms, including:

  • Sore throat.
  • Nasal congestion.
  • Lump in neck (most common).
  • Blurred or double vision.
  • Recurring ear infections.
  • Pain or numbness.
  • Headache.
  • Hearing loss, ringing in the ears, or a feeling of fullness in the ears.
  • Difficulty opening mouth
  • Nosebleed.

If you experience any of the symptoms as above, see a doctor immediately. Only experienced medical personnel can diagnose or treat this condition.

Causes of Nasopharyngeal Cancer

The cause of the condition is still not known with certainty. However, it is suspected to be related to a viral infection Epstein-Barr (EBV). EBV is a DNA virus that causes acute and latent infection of lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell).

This virus is often detected in saliva. Transmission can occur through direct contact with other people or through contaminated objects. This condition is thought to arise due to infection with the EBV virus in the nasopharyngeal cells of the sufferer, causing abnormal cell growth.

Risk Factors

Apart from EBV, there are several other factors associated with this condition, including:

1. Age

Nasopharyngeal cancer can occur at any age, but is most common in adults between the ages of 30 and 50.

2. Food

Eating certain foods can increase the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer. Processed meats or salted foods with high salt content and nitrosamines have been found in some cases to be the culprit.

3. Genetics

The risk of nasopharyngeal cancer is higher in people who have close relatives who have had this cancer. The increased risk may be due to inherited genes as well as environmental and lifestyle factors.

4. Exposure to dust and chemicals

People who are frequently exposed to wood dust or formaldehyde (industrial chemicals) have an increased risk of nasopharyngeal cancer.

5. Ear, Nose and Throat Conditions

People with chronic ear, nose and throat disease in the past may have an increased risk of developing nose cancer. These conditions are like sinusitis, otitis media, and polyps.

6. Alcohol and Smoking

Several studies have proven that the habit of consuming alcoholic beverages can increase the risk of nose cancer. In addition, drinking alcohol can cause head and neck cancer. Even so, these claims require further research.

Someone who has ever smoked has a fairly high increased risk, especially long-term smokers.

Also Read:5 Types of Cancer That Make You Constantly Nosebleed

Diagnosis of Nasopharyngeal Cancer

Here are some steps doctors generally take to confirm a diagnosis, including:

1. Medical History

Diagnosis always begins with a thorough discussion, between the patient and the doctor to make your medical history.

2. Physical Examination

A physical examination such as a detailed head and neck and goals will start with a visual inspection. Next check for swollen lymph nodes in the neck and examine the throat with a small mirror which can help in diagnosing.

3. Visual Examination

Endoscopy can be performed to obtain a visual view of the entire oral cavity and nasopharynx. This procedure is performed by inserting a very thin, lighted tube with a camera on the end, through the nose or mouth and into the nasopharynx. At that time, a tissue sample for biopsy can be taken.

4. Imaging Test

In order to obtain a more detailed view of the head and neck, X-rays, MRI, and CT/PET scans may be performed to confirm or rule out a diagnosis of cancer.

Also Read: Recognizing the Causes of Itchy Nose and How to Overcome It

Nasopharyngeal Cancer Stage

Nasopharyngeal cancer is divided into 4 stages, as follows:

Stage 0

Also called cancer in situ. At this stage, abnormal cells appear in the nasopharynx that can become cancerous and have the potential to spread to surrounding tissues.

Stage I

Abnormal cells in the nasopharynx have turned into cancer. Cancer can spread to tissues around the nasopharynx, such as the oropharynx or nasal cavity.

Stage II

In later stages, the cancer has increasingly spread to one or more lymph nodes located on one side of the neck or in the back of the throat.

Stage III

The cancer has spread to the lymph nodes on both sides of the neck, to the bones, or to the nearby sinus cavities.

Stage IV

In stage 4 cancer to other body tissues. There are two stages in this stage. In stage IVA, cancer has spread to other parts of the head such as the brain, throat, eyes or salivary glands.

While in stage IVB, cancer spreads to organs that are far from the nasopharynx, such as the collarbone or lungs.

Nasopharyngeal Cancer Treatment

Treatment for nasopharyngeal cancer can vary, depending on the stage, location of the cancer, medical history, and general condition of the patient. Here are some treatments that can be done, including:

1. Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy is used to kill cancer cells through high-energy rays. The patient will lie down on the table at the target of the radiation machine and apply the beam to the cancer area.

Radiation therapy can be used as a single treatment or in combination with other forms of treatment such as chemotherapy or surgery. This treatment is considered a major component of treatment because this type of cancer tends to be very sensitive to radiation.

Radiation treatment includes intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). IMRT is a highly specific, computer-based radiation therapy technique that allows for more accurate therapy, thereby limiting radiation exposure to surrounding healthy tissue.

Usually this therapy is done to treat early-stage nasopharyngeal cancer.

2. Chemotherapy

How to treat nasopharyngeal cancer is done to stop the growth of cancer cells by eradicating them through the use of anticancer drugs.

Anticancer agents are given orally or intravenously (IV) to stop cancer cells from growing, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing.

Chemotherapy is usually given in cycles of three to four weeks, followed by a recovery period. While in an advanced stage, chemotherapy is given with radiation to make the cancer cells more sensitive to radiation therapy, this treatment is known as chemoradiation.

Also Read: Getting to Know Turbinectomy, Procedure to Overcome Disorders of the Nose

3. Operation

Surgical removal of tumors in the nasopharynx is reserved for cases that do not respond to radiation or chemotherapy.

How to treat nasopharyngeal cancer on this one is very difficult to do and requires a high level of skill. A trained head and neck surgeon will utilize flexible optical fibers and thin surgical instruments to reach the nasopharynx for tumor removal.

If it spreads to the lymph nodes which is usually seen in nasopharyngeal cancer, then a surgical procedure can also remove the affected lymph nodes. Therefore, surgical procedures to treat nasopharyngeal cancer are rarely used.

4. Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is the administration of drugs used to stimulate the patient’s immune system to fight cancer cells. The type of immunotherapy given by doctors is generally adjusted to the conditions and needs of the patient.

In addition to the four treatments above, doctors can also perform palliative care, which is treatment to prevent and treat the symptoms and side effects of treatment received by patients.

Usually this treatment is given along with other methods, with the aim of making the patient feel comfortable.

Also Read: 9 Symptoms of Nasal Polyps that You Must Know

Nasopharyngeal cancer complications

Complications that may occur due to this cancer can vary for each patient. If the size gets bigger, nasopharyngeal cancer can put pressure on other nearby organs, including the nerves, throat, and brain.

Although generally this type of cancer spreads to the lymph nodes around the neck, it does not rule out the possibility of spreading to further organs, such as the bones, lungs and liver.

Radiation therapy treatment for nasopharyngeal cancer can also cause several complications, including:

  • Dental disorders, eg osteonecrosis.
  • Hypoplasia of muscle and bone tissue.
  • Growth disorders.
  • Loss of hearing ability.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Scar tissue on the neck.

Prevention of Nasopharyngeal Cancer

There is no way to prevent this condition. However, several efforts can be made to maintain health so that the risk can be reduced. These efforts include:

  • Avoid foods preserved with salt.
  • Do not consume alcoholic beverages.
  • Avoid or quit smoking.
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  3. Anonymous. 2018. Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma. (Accessed 9 February 2023)
  4. Anonymous. 2020. About Epstein-Barr Virus. (Accessed 9 February 2023)
  5. Anonymous. Palliative Care. (Accessed 9 February 2023)
  6. Anonymous. 2018. What Causes Nasopharyngeal Cancer?. (Accessed 9 February 2023)
  7. Pichardo, Gabriela. 2020. Nasopharyngeal Cancer. (Accessed 9 February 2023)

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