The nasopharynx is the top of the pharynx (throat), the muscular cavity leading from the nose and mouth to the larynx (voice box). Nasopharyngeal cancer is a type of head and neck cancer but is reviewed separately from other types of head and neck cancer.

In total, this report analyses 10 case-control studies from Asian countries, covering over 5,700 cases of nasopharyngeal cancer and 5,900 control subjects.

Incidence

Nasopharyngeal cancer is the 24th most common cancer worldwide. Over 86,500 new cases of nasopharyngeal cancer were recorded globally in 2012, accounting for less than 1 per cent of all new cases of cancer.

Nasopharyngeal cancer is approximately twice as common in men than in women. Overall incidence rates are three times higher in middle- to low-income countries than in high-income countries. The highest rates are found in South-East Asia, in particular among Cantonese people living in the central region of Guangdong Province in southern China.

Lifestyle factors and nasopharyngeal cancer risk

In the Continuous Update Project (CUP) – the world’s largest source of scientific research on cancer prevention and survivorship through diet, nutrition and physical activity – we analyse global research on how certain lifestyle factors affect the risk of developing nasopharyngeal cancer. This webpage forms part of the World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research Third Expert Report Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: a Global Perspective.

Findings on nasopharyngeal cancer

There is strong evidence that:

There is some evidence that:

Other causes of nasopharyngeal cancer

In addition to the findings on diet, nutrition, physical activity outlined above, other established causes of nasopharyngeal cancers include:

  • smoking

Smoking tobacco is a cause of nasopharyngeal cancer. It is estimated that 23 per cent of cases of nasopharyngeal cancers are attributable to smoking tobacco.

  • occupational exposure

Occupational exposure to wood dust and formaldehyde is also a cause of this cancer.

  • infectious agents

Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection is a cause of nasopharyngeal cancer. Although it is a necessary cause, it is not sufficient as only a fraction of the infected population develops nasopharyngeal cancer.

How the research was conducted

The global scientific research on diet, nutrition, physical activity and the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer was systematically gathered and analysed, and then independently assessed by a panel of leading international scientists in order to draw conclusions about which of these factors increase or decrease the risk of developing nasopharyngeal cancer.

For a summary of the mechanisms underpinning all the findings, download the relevant chapters from the Third Expert Report:

A full report bringing together all the evidence on nasopharyngeal cancer will be published in 2019.

This webpage is a summary.

For much more information, download the full systematic literature review and protocol.