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Nasopharyngeal cancer develops in the nasopharynx, an area in the back of the nose toward the base of skull. The nasopharynx is the upper part of the throat (pharynx) that lies behind the nose. It is a box-like chamber about 1½ inches on each edge. It lies just above the soft part of the roof of the mouth (soft palate) and just in back of the entrance into the nasal passages.

Nasopharyngeal carcinoma is difficult to detect early, probably because the nasopharnyx isn′t easy to examine and symptoms of nasopharyngeal carcinoma imitate those of many other conditions.

Nasopharyngeal tumors

Several types of tumors can develop in the nasopharynx. Some of these tumors are benign (non-cancerous), but others are malignant (cancerous).

Benign nasopharyngeal tumors

Benign tumors of the nasopharynx are fairly rare and tend to occur in children and young adults. They include tumors or malformations of the vascular (blood-carrying) system, such as angiofibromas and hemangiomas, and benign tumors of the minor salivary glands that are found within the nasopharynx.

Malignant nasopharyngeal tumors

These tumors can invade surrounding tissues and spread to other parts of the body.

Nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC): This is the most common malignant tumor of the nasopharynx. A carcinoma is a cancer that starts in epithelial cells -- the cells lining the internal and external surfaces of the body. Most of the rest of this document refers to NPC.

There are 3 types of NPC:

  • Keratinizing squamous cell carcinoma
  • Non-keratinizing differentiated carcinoma
  • Undifferentiated carcinoma

These types look different when seen under a microscope, but studies have shown they start from the same cell type -- the epithelial cells that cover the surface lining of the nasopharynx. The treatment is also usually the same for all types of nasopharyngeal cancer.

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