What is Nasopharyngeal Cancer?

The Nasopharynx

The nasopharynx is the upper part of the throat (pharynx) that lies behind the nose. It is a box-like chamber about one and a half inches on each edge. It lies just above the soft part of the roof of the mouth (soft palate) and just in back of the entrance into the nasal passages.

Several types of tumors can develop in the nasopharynx. Some of these tumors are benign but others are malignant. Benign tumors of the nasopharynx are fairly rare and tend to occur in children and young adults. They include tumors or malformations of the vascular (blood-carrying) system, such as angiofibromas and hemangiomas, and benign tumors of the minor salivary glands that are found within the nasopharynx. Treatment of these tumors (if it is needed) is different from that for cancerous nasopharyngeal tumors.

Malignant Nasopharyngeal Tumors

Malignant tumors can invade surrounding tissue and spread to other parts of the body. Following are the most common malignant nasopharyngeal tumors:

Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma - This is the most common malignant tumor of the nasopharynx. A carcinoma is a cancer that starts in epithelial cells -- the cells lining the internal and external surfaces of the body. This tumor has three types: The Keratinizing Squamous Cell Carcinoma, the Non-Keratinizing Differentiated Carcinoma and the Undifferentiated Carcinoma.

These types all start from the same cell type -- the epithelial cells that cover the surface lining of the nasopharynx. The treatment is also usually the same for all types of nasopharyngeal cancer.

Lymphoma - Lymphomas can sometimes start in the nasopharynx. They are cancers of immune system cells called lymphocytes, cells that are normally found in the nasopharynx.

Adenocarcinoma and Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma - These are cancers that can develop in the minor salivary glands found in the nasopharynx.

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