Nasopharyngeal carcinoma is the most common cancer originating in the nasopharynx, the uppermost region of the pharynx ("throat"), behind the nose where the nasal passages and auditory tubes join the remainder of the upper respiratory tract. NPC occurs in children and adults. NPC differs significantly from other cancers of the head and neck in its occurrence, causes, clinical behavior, and treatment. It is vastly more common in certain regions of East Asia and Africa than elsewhere, with viral, dietary and genetic factors implicated in its causation. It is most common in males. It is a squamous cell carcinoma or an undifferentiated type. Squamous epithelial cells are a flat type of cell found in the skin and the membranes that line some body cavities. Differentiation means how different the cancer cells are from normal cells. Undifferentiated is a word used to describe cells that do not have their mature features or functions.
Swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck is the initial presentation in many people, and the diagnosis of nasopharyngeal carcinoma is often made by lymph node biopsy. Signs and symptoms related to the primary tumor include trismus, pain, otitis media, nasal regurgitation due to paresis (loss of or impaired movement) of the soft palate, hearing loss and cranial nerve palsy (paralysis). Larger growths may produce nasal obstruction or bleeding and a "nasal twang". Metastatic spread may result in bone pain or organ dysfunction. Rarely, a paraneoplastic syndrome of osteoarthropathy (diseases of joints and bones) may occur with widespread disease.
Nasopharyngeal carcinoma is caused by a combination of factors: viral, environmental influences, and heredity. The viral influence is associated with infection with Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). The Epstein-Barr virus is one of the most common viruses. 95 percent of all people in the U.S. are exposed to this virus by the time they are 30–40 years old. The World Health Organization does not have set preventative measures for this virus because it is so easily spread and is worldwide. Very rarely does Epstein-Barr virus lead to cancer, which suggests a variety of influencing factors. Other likely etiological factors include genetic susceptibility, consumption of food (in particular salted fish) containing carcinogenic volatile nitrosamines.
The association between Epstein-Barr virus and nasopharyngeal carcinoma is unequivocal in World Health Organization (WHO) types II and III tumors but less well-established for WHO type I (WHO-I) NPC, where preliminary evaluation has suggested that human papillomavirus HPV may be associated. EBV DNA was detectable in the blood plasma samples of 96% of patients with non-keratinizing NPC, compared with only 7% in controls. The detection of nuclear antigen associated with Epstein-Barr virus (EBNA) and viral DNA in NPC type 2 and 3, has revealed that EBV can infect epithelial cells and is associated with their transformation. The etiology of NPC (particularly the endemic form) seems to follow a multi-step process, in which EBV, ethnic background, and environmental carcinogens all seem to play an important role. More importantly, EBV DNA levels appear to correlate with treatment response and may predict disease recurrence, suggesting that they may be an independent indicator of prognosis. The mechanism by which EBV alters nasopharyngeal cells is being elucidated to provide a rational therapeutic target.
Nasopharyngeal carcinoma, commonly known as nasopharyngeal cancer, is classified as a malignant neoplasm, or cancer, arising from the mucosal epithelium of the nasopharynx, most often within the lateral nasopharyngeal recess or fossa of Rosenmüller (a recess behind the entrance of the eustachian tube opening). The World Health Organization classifies nasopharyngeal carcinoma in three types. Type 1 (I) is keratinizing squamous cell carcinoma. Type 2a (II) is non-keratinizing squamous cell carcinoma. Type 2b (III) is undifferentiated carcinoma. Type 2b (III) nonkeratinizing undifferentiated form also known as lymphoepithelioma is most common, and is most strongly associated with Epstein-Barr virus infection of the cancerous cells.
Staging of nasophayngeal carcinoma is based on clinical and radiologic examination. Most patients present with Stage III or IV disease.
Stage I is a small tumor confined to nasopharynx.
Stage II is a tumor extending in the local area, or that with any evidence of limited neck (nodal) disease.
Stage III is a large tumor with or without neck disease, or a tumor with bilateral neck disease.
Stage IV is a large tumor involving intracranial or infratemporal regions, an extensive neck disease, and/or any distant metastasis.
Nasopharyngeal carcinoma can be treated by surgery, by chemotherapy, or by radiotherapy. The expression of EBV latent proteins within undifferentiated nasopharyngeal carcinoma can be potentially exploited for immune-based therapies.