About Cancer of the Nasal Cavity and Nasopharynx

What should people know about cancer of the nasal cavity and nasopharynx?

The nasal cavity is a large air-filled space located just behind the nose. Air passes through the nasal cavity on its way to the lungs during breathing. The nasal cavity is separated from the mouth by the hard palate (the front part of the roof of the mouth). The paranasal sinuses are small hollow spaces located on both sides of the nose. The sinuses are lined with cells that make mucus, which keeps the nose from drying out. In this fact sheet, cancers of the paranasal sinuses are included with cancers of the nasal cavity.

The nasopharynx is the upper part of the back of the throat. It lies just above the soft palate (the back part of the roof of the mouth). It connects the nasal cavity with the lower parts of the throat and eventually the lungs.

Cancers of the nasal cavity (including the paranasal sinuses) and nasopharynx are rare. Each year in New York, about 180 people are diagnosed with nasal cavity cancer and about 25 people die from this disease. About 170 people in New York are diagnosed with cancer of the nasopharynx each year, and about 50 people die from it.

Who gets cancer of the nasal cavity and nasopharynx?

Both cancers of the nasal cavity and the nasopharynx are found twice as often in men as in women.

Cancer of the nasal cavity occurs most often in people between the ages of 45 and 85. Risk of cancer of the nasopharynx increases with age, but it can occur in people of any age, including children.

Rates of cancer of the nasopharynx are higher in certain Asian groups, including the Chinese and people from the Philippines and southeast Asia, and in some natives of the Arctic and North Africa. Rates are especially high in people from southern China.

What factors increase risk for developing cancer of the nasal cavity and nasopharynx?

At this time, the causes of cancer of the nasal cavity and nasopharynx are not well understood. However, scientists agree that certain factors increase a person's risk of developing this disease.

Risk factors for both cancers include:

  • Smoking.People who smoke have an increased risk of getting nasal cavity cancer and cancer of the nasopharynx.

Risk factors for nasal cavity cancer include:

  • Workplace exposures. Workplace exposures to high levels of certain types of dusts, including wood dust, nickel dust, leather dust and textile dust, have been associated with increased risk of nasal cavity cancer. Workers exposed to the radioactive element radium have also been found to be at higher risk.

Risk factors for cancer of the nasopharynx include:

  • Salted fish and other preserved foods. The higher rates of cancer of the nasopharynx among people from China and southeast Asia have been linked with eating salted preserved fish, a part of the traditional diet in this region of the world. Some other preserved foods eaten by people in other parts of the world have also been associated with this disease. Risk is greatest for people who first started eating these foods at a very young age.
  • Epstein-Barr virus. Infection with the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) has been linked to increased risk for cancer of the nasopharynx. EBV is a very common virus that causes infectious mononucleosis ("mono"). However, most people infected with EBV do not get cancer of the nasopharynx, so the virus alone cannot be the cause of the cancer.

What other risk factors for cancer of the nasal cavity and nasopharynx are scientists studying?

The nasal cavity and nasopharynx are located next to each other, so they both might be affected by the same inhaled substances. Some studies of people exposed to high levels of chemicals in the workplace have found one or both of these cancers to be associated with exposures to substances including formaldehyde, chromium or chromium compounds, and cutting oils.

For cancer of the nasal cavity, some studies have linked increased risk with exposures to second hand smoke and tobacco products other than cigarettes, viruses including EBV and the human papilloma virus (HPV, the virus that causes cervical cancer), and noncancerous conditions such as nasal polyps.

For cancer of the nasopharynx, studies are looking into the effects of dietary factors, including fruits and vegetables, in reducing risk. Scientists are also studying the way a person's individual genetic makeup interacts with the environment to determine who will get cancer of the nasopharynx.

Additional research is needed to determine the role, if any, these factors may have in the development of cancers of the nasal cavity and nasopharynx.

What can I do to reduce my chances of getting cancer of the nasal cavity and nasopharynx?

To help reduce the risk of getting cancer of the nasal cavity and nasopharynx:

  • Do not smoke. If you currently smoke, quit. Avoid exposure to second hand smoke. For more information on quitting smoking, visit the NYS Smoker's Quitline at www.nysmokefree.com or call 1-866-NY-QUITS.
  • Be aware of workplace health and safety rules and follow them.
  • Limit your consumption of salted, preserved fish. It is especially important not to give these foods to very young children.

How else can I reduce my risk for cancer?

The following may help reduce the risk of developing cancer:

  • Choose a healthy diet to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Eat more vegetables, fruits and whole grains and eat less red and processed (e.g., bacon, sausage, luncheon meat, hot dogs) meats. These actions may reduce the risk of developing many types of cancer as well as other diseases.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Discuss the risks and benefits of medical imaging, such as CT scans, with your health care provider to avoid unnecessary exposure to ionizing radiation. This is particularly important for children.
  • Talk to your health care provider about recommended cancer screenings.

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