Nasopharyngeal carcinoma

You have been noticing from a few days that there is a swelling in the lymph glands in your neck, there is bleeding from the nose, and also blood in your saliva. Added to this your vision is blurring and you cannot hear the way you used to. These symptoms indicate a case of nasopharyngeal cancer.

Nasopharynx is the area present at the back of your nose that opens into the upper part of your throat. Cancer is nothing but the abnormal growth of cells that lead to clamping of cells to form tumors which can be malignant (harmful) or benign (harmless). In malignant cases of cancer, the cancer cells metastasize or spread to other parts of the body through the blood stream affecting them. The nasopharyngeal cancer occurs in people between 30 to 50 years of age and is more common in women. Incidence of nasopharyngeal cancer is found in Southern China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos.

The exact cause of nasopharyngeal cancer is not known but the risk of developing it is high in people who eat foods preserved in salt like eggs, fish, roots, and leafy vegetables. It may also be caused due to genetic factors, heavy alcohol consumption, and also by a virus called as the Epstein Barr Virus.

Symptoms may not appear in the early stages of the cancer. The symptoms that you may notice at later stages of cancer are:

  • discharge of blood from nose
  • nasal congestion
  • Loss of hearing
  • ear infections
  • blurred vision
  • sore throat
  • blood in saliva
  • swollen lymph node in neck
  • headache

For diagnosing nasopharyngeal cancer, the doctor first does general physical examination. The neck is felt to assess for any palpable swollen lymph nodes. If nasopharyngeal cancer is suspected, the doctor recommends nasopharyngeal endoscopy in which a tube with camera at its end is passed through the nose into the nasopharynx to check for any tumors or abnormalities that may be present. Local anesthesia is given for this procedure. A small part of tissue is taken as sample which is known as biopsy with the help of endoscope or an instrument, to look for any cancer cells. The sample is then tested to see if there are any cancer cells present.

To determine the stage in which the cancer has progressed, the doctor recommends tests like:

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) which uses magnetic field to produce clear images of organs.
  • Computerized Tomography (CT) by which 2D and 3D images are created.
  • X-ray and Positron emission Tomography (PET) that gives information regarding function of the organs.

The treatment of nasopharyngeal cancer is a combination of radiation therapy and chemotherapy. In radiation therapy, rays of high energy are used to kill cancer cells. For nasopharyngeal cancer, radiation therapy known as external beam radiation is used. In this procedure, the patient is placed on a table and the machine is put in such a position from where it targets radiation to the exact area of cancer in the patient. This treatment is enough for small nasopharyngeal tumors. If the cancer is severe, chemotherapy is also combined with radiation therapy. Chemotherapy involves the use of chemical drugs to kill cancer cells. This is given to patient in the form of oral pills or intravenously (through the vein). Surgery may be necessary to remove tumors in the nasopharynx and malignant lymph nodes in the neck.

Nasopharyngeal cancer is generally detected at an advanced stage of cancer progression because the cancer may not show symptoms at an early stage. For every 10 persons who have been diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer, 5 of them survive up to 5 years. The survival rate also depends on the treatment. With a combination of chemotherapy and radiation, 6 out of 10 people having cancer survive for more than 5 years.

Knowing that you have cancer can be very overwhelming for you and all the people who care about you. Try sharing your feelings with someone from your family or friends. Take medications regularly and visit you doctor for regular checkups. You can also connect with support groups and share your feelings with them. Involve yourself in some hobby you love. Take good care of yourself by eating healthy and doing exercise to keep yourself fit and above all have faith.