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