Referral to a specialist for nasopharyngeal cancer

Your GP should arrange for you to see a specialist if you have symptoms that could be due to nasopharyngeal cancer. Depending on your symptoms and other factors, this might be an urgent referral.

Seeing your GP

It can be hard for GPs to decide who may have cancer and who might have a more minor condition. For some symptoms, your doctor may ask you to wait to see if the symptoms get better or respond to treatment, such as antibiotics.

UK referral guidelines

There are guidelines for GPs to help them decide who needs a referral.

Some of the UK nations have targets around how quickly you’ll be seen. In England, an urgent referral means that you should see a specialist within 2 weeks.

This 2 week time frame is not part of the waiting times for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But wherever you live, you are seen as quickly as possible.

Ask your GP when you are likely to get an appointment.

Guidelines for head and neck cancer

There are general guidelines for all head and neck suspected cancer referrals. These guidelines vary between the different UK nations. The following is a summary.

Your doctor (or sometimes your dentist) might refer you to a specialist urgently if you have: 

  • an unexplained lump in the head and neck area

Or any of these symptoms if they don’t get better:

  • a swelling or break (ulceration) on the lips or in the mouth
  • an unexplained sore or painful throat
  • unexplained painful swallowing
  • an unexplained hoarse voice
  • red or red and white patches in your mouth

A symptom that does not get better usually means a symptom that lasts for more than 3 weeks.

Other symptoms

Your doctor might use these guidelines as well as considering other symptoms that you have.

Your GP might also take into account whether you have any risk factors that affect your chances of developing a nasopharyngeal cancer.

Neck lump clinic

A lump or growth in your neck is a common symptom of nasopharyngeal cancer and may be the only symptom you have. Your GP might refer you to a neck lump clinic if you have one at your hospital. 

The neck lump clinic is a one stop clinic. You see a specialist who examines your lump. You then have tests to check for cancer, such as an ultrasound scan. They may take a sample of tissue from the lump (a biopsy).

You might have a follow up appointment about a week later to get the results. Or in some clinics you might get some results on the same day.

If you're still worried

If you're still worried, it’s worth remembering that nasopharyngeal cancers are rare.  You could make another appointment with your GP if you are concerned they are not taking your symptoms seriously.

You could print this page and the symptoms page and ask your GP to talk it through with you. Then you might be able to decide together whether you need to see a specialist.

  • Suspected cancer: recognition and referral
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), June 2015, updated January 2021

  • Scottish guidelines for suspected cancer
    The Scottish Government, 2019

  • 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, Pages 452-465

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

Last reviewed: 
03 Feb 2021
Next review due: 
03 Feb 2024

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