Types of nasopharyngeal cancer

The type of nasopharyngeal cancer means the type of cell the cancer started in.

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 treatment.

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.

Main types of nasopharyngeal cancer

There are 3 main types of nasopharyngeal cancer. They are:

  • keratinising squamous cell carcinoma
  • non keratinising squamous cell carcinoma
  • basaloid squamous cell carcinoma

Carcinoma is another word for cancer. Squamous cells are the flat skin-like cells that line the inside of your mouth, nose, voice box (larynx) and throat. A keratinising cancer has keratin in the cancer cells. Keratin is the protein that forms your hair and nails.

Non keratinising cancer is the most common type of nasopharyngeal cancer. Basaloid squamous cell cancer is very rare.

All these types of nasopharyngeal cancer are treated in the same way.

Other types of nasopharyngeal cancer

There are other types of cancer that can start in the nasopharynx but these are very rare. They are treated differently to the main types of nasopharyngeal cancer.

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 Open a glossary item 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. 


Melanoma develops 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.

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