What is the nasopharynx? | Cancer Research UK
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What is the nasopharynx?

Men and women discussing nasopharyngeal cancer

This page tells you about the nasopharynx and the other parts of the pharynx. You can find the following information

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Parts of the pharynx

The pharynx is the medical name for the throat. The pharynx is in 3 parts, and the nasopharynx is one of these parts. The nasopharynx is the part of the throat that connects to your nose. Cancer that develops in the nasopharynx is called nasopharyngeal cancer.

The 2 other parts of the pharynx are the oropharynx (at the back of your mouth) and the hypopharynx (near your voice box – the larynx). There is information about cancer of the oropharynx in the mouth and oropharyngeal cancer section. And there is information about cancer of the hypopharynx in the cancer of the larynx section.

What throat cancer means

People sometimes use the words throat cancer to describe cancer that develops in any of the 3 parts of the pharynx. Some people may also use it to mean cancers near the pharynx, such as cancer of the thyroid gland, the larynx or the food pipe (oesophagus). To avoid confusion, it is important to know the exact medical name of the cancer you have so that you can find the right information.

Lymph nodes in your neck

Lymph nodes are small, bean shaped glands that are part of the lymphatic system. There are major groups of lymph nodes in the neck. Cancers that start in the nasopharynx can spread to these lymph nodes.
 

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

 

 

Parts of the pharynx

Pharynx is the medical name for the throat. The pharynx is in 3 parts and 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. You can’t see your own nasopharynx directly, but if you look inside your mouth in the mirror, it lies above your soft palate (the soft area at the back of the roof of your mouth) and uvula (the dangly bit) at the back of the mouth.

The other 2 parts of the pharynx are

  • The oropharynx – the part of the throat at the back of the mouth. Cancers that start in this area are oropharyngeal cancers. Oropharynx is pronounced oar-o-fa-rinks
  • The hypopharynx – it sits behind and on either side of the larynx (voice box). Cancer can also start in the hypopharynx, which is pronounced hy-po-fa-rinks

Diagram showing the parts of the pharynx

This section is about nasopharyngeal cancer. There is information about cancer of the oropharynx in the mouth and oropharyngeal cancer section. There is information about cancer of the hypopharynx in the cancer of the larynx section.

 

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 generally don’t use it. Many patients and relatives may use throat cancer to mean cancer that develops in any of the 3 parts of the pharynx. People may also use it to mean cancers near the pharynx, such as cancer of the thyroid gland, the larynx or the food pipe (oesophagus).

To avoid confusion, it is important to know the exact medical name of the cancer you or your relative have so that you can find the right information. Cancers are treated according to where they started. For example, the treatment for thyroid cancer is completely different to 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.

We have more information about what people may consider to be throat cancer.

 

The lymph nodes in your neck and nasopharyngeal cancer

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. 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 may spread to these lymph nodes. You may need radiotherapy with or without chemotherapy to treat the cancer in these lymph nodes.

There is more information about the lymph glands and the lymphatic system in the about your body section.

Cancer that begins in the lymph nodes (rather than spreading to them) is called lymphoma. If you are looking for information about lymphoma, this is not the right section for you. You need to go to the non Hodgkin lymphoma section or Hodgkin lymphoma section.

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Updated: 16 August 2014