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Nasopharyngeal cancer types

Men and women discussing nasopharyngeal cancer

This page is about the different types of nasopharyngeal cancer. You can find the following information

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Types of nasopharyngeal cancer

Several layers of tissue make up the nasopharynx, each containing many different types of cells. Different cancers can develop from each cell type. It is important for doctors to recognise these differences. They help doctors decide what is the best way to treat that particular type of cancer. Tumours of the nasopharynx can be non cancerous (benign), or cancerous (malignant).

Squamous cell cancers

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 3 different types of squamous cell nasopharyngeal cancers, and they are treated in similar ways.

Other types of nasopharyngeal cancer

Other types of nasopharyngeal cancer are more rare. These include adenocarcinomas and adenoid cystic carcinomas (which can develop in the minor salivary glands within the nasopharynx), lymphomas, melanomas and sarcomas. If you are looking for information on any of these types of cancer, this is not the right section for you. You need to go to the section that is about the type of cancer you have.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the about nasopharyngeal cancer section.

 

 

Why the type of cancer matters

Several layers of tissue make up the nasopharynx. Each layer contains many different types of cells. Different cancers can develop from each type of cell. Knowing these differences help doctors decide what is 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. Other types of nasopharyngeal cancer are more rare and include

Adenocarcinoma and adenoid cystic carcinomas 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. If you are looking for information on lymphoma, you need to go to either the Hodgkin lymphoma section or the non Hodgkin lymphoma section. Your treatment will be very different to treatment for squamous cell head and neck cancer.

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). If you are looking for information about melanoma, you need to go to the melanoma section.

Sarcomas develop from the cells that make up body tissues called connective tissues (including bone, muscle, cartilage and fat). If you are looking for information about sarcoma you need to go to the sarcoma section.

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Updated: 16 August 2014