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About nasopharyngeal cancer

Find out what nasopharyngeal cancer is, where it starts and who gets it. 

The nasopharynx

Pharynx is the medical name for the throat. The pharynx is in 3 parts. The nasopharynx is one of these parts. Nasopharynx is pronounced nas-o-fa-rinks.

The nasopharynx connects the back of your nose to the back of your mouth. Cancer that develops in the nasopharynx is called nasopharyngeal cancer. Nasopharyngeal is pronounced nas-o-fa-rin-jee-al.

Parts of the pharynx (throat)

You can’t see your own nasopharynx directly. It lies above the soft area at the back of the roof of your mouth (your soft palate) and the dangly bit (uvula) at the back of your mouth. You can see these if you look inside your mouth in a mirror.

The other 2 parts of the pharynx are:

  • the oropharynx (pronounced oar-o-fa-rinks) – the part of the throat at the back of the mouth
  • the hypopharynx (pronounced hy-po-fa-rinks) – this sits behind and on either side of the larynx (voice box)
Diagram showing the parts of the pharynx

This section is about nasopharyngeal cancer. 

What throat cancer means

Many people get confused about what throat cancer really means. Pharynx is the medical name for the throat.

Throat cancer is not a very exact medical term, so doctors don’t generally use it. Many patients and relatives might use the term throat cancer to mean cancer that develops in any of the 3 parts of the pharynx. People might also use it to mean cancers near the pharynx, such as cancer of the thyroid gland, the voice box (larynx) or the food pipe (oesophagus).

It is important to know the exact medical name of the cancer you or your relative has, so that you can find the right information and avoid confusion.

Cancers are treated according to where they started. For example, the treatment for thyroid cancer is completely different to the treatment for nasopharyngeal cancer. If you are not sure of the medical name of your cancer, ask your doctor or nurse to write it down for you.

The lymph nodes in your neck

Like other parts of the body, the neck contains lymph nodes (also called lymph glands). These small, bean shaped glands are part of the lymphatic system, which is part of your immune system. Lymph nodes are often the first place cancer cells spread to when they break away from a tumour.

Diagram showing the lymph nodes in the head and neck

There are major groups of lymph nodes in the neck. If you have nasopharyngeal cancer, it might spread to these lymph nodes. You might need radiotherapy with or without chemotherapy to treat any cancer in these lymph nodes.

Lymphoma

Cancer that begins in the lymph nodes (rather than spreading to them) is called lymphoma. You can read about it in our sections on non Hodgkin lymphoma or Hodgkin lymphoma.​

Who gets it

Nasopharyngeal cancer is more common in some ethnic groups living in the UK – people of Chinese origin, for example. It is also more common in men than women.

How common it is

Nasopharyngeal cancer is very rare in the UK. There are around 240 cases diagnosed here each year.

Last reviewed: 
16 Aug 2014
  • Cancer principles and practice of oncology (9th edition)
    De Vita VT, Lawrence TS and Rosenberg SA.
    Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins, 2011

  • Textbook of uncommon cancers (4th edition)
    Raghavan D, Blanke C, Johnson D and others
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2012

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