Pharyngeal Cancer

The pharynx is an area in the neck and throat. It is divided into three sections:

  • Nasopharynx is the top section
  • Oropharynx is the middle section
  • Hypopharynx is the lowest section

The oropharynx is the space in the back of the mouth, sometimes called the back of the throat. The base of the tongue, parts of the tonsil, the back of the soft palate, and the uvula are all located in the oropharynx. The oropharynx is often just called the pharynx.


One of the first symptoms of pharyngeal cancer is a painless lump in the upper neck. Other symptoms include any of the following signs:

  • Swelling of the neck
  • Persistent headaches
  • Nasal congestion (a blocked nose)
  • Facial pain
  • Nosebleeds
  • Changes in hearing
  • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)

Many people have no symptoms.

These symptoms are also common in non-cancerous conditions. Most people with these symptoms do not have cancer of the pharynx.

Causes and Risk Factors

The exact cause of pharyngeal cancer is not known.

  • Occurs more often in ages 50 to 60, but can occur at any age
  • It affects more men than women.
  • Exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus increases the risk of developing pharyngeal cancer.

Cooking salt-cured fish and meat releases a chemical called nitrosamine which might increase the risk of developing the disease.


The doctor will examine your mouth, throat, ears and will use a small lighted mirror to examine your pharynx. The doctor will pass a thin flexible tube with a light at the end (flexible endoscope) into the nostril to look at the back of the nose. A local anesthetic spray might be used to numb your nose and throat. You will be instructed not to eat or drink anything for an hour afterwards, or until your throat is no longer numb.

If a tumor is suspected, the doctor will take a biopsy and a pathologist will examine the tissue under a microscope.

Pathologists classify nasopharyngeal cancer by the type of cell. There are three types:

  • Keratinizing squamous cell carcinoma
  • Non-keratinizing squamous cell carcinoma
  • Undifferentiated or poorly differentiated carcinoma

The doctor may also order other tests:

  • Blood tests
  • Imaging studies to determine if the tumor has invaded nearby tissues or other organs in the body.
    • Orthopantomography (panorex) is a panoramic X-ray of the upper and lower jaw. It shows a view from ear to ear and it helps determine if a tumor has grown into the jaw bone.
    • CT scan. A special type of X-ray that makes a series of detailed pictures, with different angles, of areas inside the mouth and neck. A computer is linked to the X-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed in a pill to help highlight the organs or tissues on the X-ray. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
    • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). A machine that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make detailed pictures of areas inside the mouth and neck. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
    • PET scan. During a positron emission tomography scan (PET), a small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The scanner makes computerized pictures of the areas inside the body. Cancer cells absorb more radioactive glucose than normal cells, so the tumor is highlighted on the pictures.


Radiation therapy combined with chemotherapy (chemoradiation) is the most common treatment. In most cases, surgery is only required if the tumor returns after chemoradiation therapy.