The pharynx is the medical term for the throat. Learn more with this 3D animation.

What is nasopharyngeal cancer?

Cancer occurs when cells become abnormal, grow uncontrollably and have the potential to spread to other parts of the body. These cells build up to form a mass (or lump). Cancer that starts in or behind the nose is called nasopharyngeal cancer.

What causes nasopharyngeal cancer?

Doctors often can’t explain why a person gets cancer. But we do know what makes some cancers more likely.

The main causes of nasopharyngeal cancer are:
  • viruses, in particulat the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)

  • smoking (cigarettes, cigars or pipes) or using smokeless tobacco (snuff and chewing tobacco). If a person smokes or has smoked in the past they have a higher risk of getting nasopharyngeal cancer than someone who has never smoked.

Other factors that increase the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer are: 

Age – most nasopharyngeal cancers are in people aged 40 years and over
Eating a lot of salt-cured fish and meat
Being male - in Australia, men are about three times more likely than women to get nasopharyngeal cancer 
Being from Southern China or South East Asia - people from Southern China and South East Asia seem to have a higher risk. In 2009, over one in three people diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancers were from Asia