The type of nasopharyngeal cancer means the type of cell the cancer started in. Knowing this helps your doctor decide which treatment you need.
Why the type of cancer matters
Several layers of tissue make up the nasopharynx. Each layer contains many different types of cells.
Different types of cancer can develop from each type of cell. Knowing these differences help doctors decide on the best way to treat that particular type of cancer.
Cancerous and non cancerous tumours
Tumours of the nasopharynx can be non cancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant).
Non cancerous nasopharyngeal growths are rare. They are mostly found in children and young adults. There are several types of non cancerous tumours. These include growths of small blood vessels, known as angiofibromas and haemangiomas.
There are also benign tumours of the minor salivary glands. Minor salivary glands are found throughout the head and neck, including in the nasopharynx.
Malignant nasopharyngeal tumours include the types mentioned below. If they are not treated they can gradually spread into surrounding tissue and to other parts of the body.
Squamous cell cancers
Several types of cancers can develop from the tissue that makes up the nasopharynx.
Most nasopharyngeal cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. Squamous cells are the flat, skin like cells that line the inside of your mouth, nose, larynx and throat. Carcinoma means cancer. So squamous cell carcinoma is cancer that starts in these cells.
There are different types of squamous cell nasopharyngeal cancers. The 3 main types are:
- keratinising squamous cell carcinoma (type 1)
- non keratinising squamous cell carcinoma (type 2)
- undifferentiated carcinomas (type 3)
Keratin is the protein that forms your hair and nails. A keratinising cancer has keratin in the cancer cells. All squamous cell cancers of the nasopharynx are treated in similar ways. We've included these terms in case you hear them and wonder what they mean.
Other types of nasopharyngeal cancer
Squamous cell cancer is not the only type of cancer that can develop in the nasopharynx. But other types of nasopharyngeal cancer are more rare.
Adenocarcinoma and adenoid cystic carcinomas
These cancers can develop in the minor salivary glands within the nasopharynx. But these cancer types are more common in the mouth and nose.
Lymphomas are cancers that start in the lymph nodes or lymph gland tissue such as the adenoids. There are many lymph nodes in the neck. Painless swelling of a lymph node is the most common symptom of lymphoma.
Treatment for lymphoma is very different to treatment for squamous cell head and neck cancers. For information on lymphoma, see our sections on Hodgkin lymphoma or non Hodgkin lymphoma.
Melanomas develop from the pigment producing cells that give the skin its colour. Melanomas of the head and neck can occur anywhere on the skin or inside the nose or mouth (oral cavity).
Sarcomas develop from the cells that make up body tissues called connective tissues. These include bone, muscle, cartilage and fat.