What is nasopharyngeal cancer?

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.

Nasopharyngeal cancer is when abnormal cells in the nasopharynx start to divide and grow in an uncontrollable way and form a growth (tumour). Over time, the cells can grow into nearby structures, or enter the blood or lymphatic system and may spread to other areas of the body.

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 using 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

What throat cancer means

Throat cancer is not an exact medical term, so doctors don’t generally use it. Many people use the term throat cancer to mean cancer which has developed in any of the 3 parts of the pharynx. They might also use it to mean cancers near the pharynx, such as cancer of the:

  • thyroid gland
  • voice box (larynx)
  • food pipe (oesophagus)

It is important to know the exact medical name of the cancer you have, 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. They are 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 groups of lymph nodes in the neck. If you have nasopharyngeal cancer, it might spread to these lymph nodes.


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 nasopharyngeal cancer?

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

How common is nasopharyngeal cancer?

Nasopharyngeal cancer is very rare in the UK. There are around 260 cases diagnosed here each year.

Last reviewed: 
02 Feb 2021
Next review due: 
02 Feb 2024
  • Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (11th edition)
    VT DeVita, TS Lawrence, SA Rosenberg
    Walters Kluwer, 2019

  • Textbook of uncommon cancers (5th edition)
    D Raghavan, MS Ahluwalia, C Blanke and others
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2017

  • Nasopharyngeal carcinoma: United Kingdom National Multidisciplinary Guidelines
    R Simo and others
    The Journal of Laryngology and Otology, 2016. Volume 130, Supplement 2, Pages 97-103

  • Nasopharyngeal carcinoma: ESMO-EURACAN Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow up
    P Bossi and others
    Annals of Oncology, 2021. Volume 32, Issue 4, Page 452-465

  • Statistics provided by the Statistical Information Team at Cancer Research UK

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