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.
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.
The cancer statistics quoted in the Third Expert Report are from the GLOBOCAN 2012 database. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) updated these statistics in September 2018, after the publication of the Third Expert Report. Find the latest nasopharyngeal cancer statistics.
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:
- consuming Cantonese-style salted fish increases the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer
There is some evidence that:
- consuming red meat might increase the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer
- consuming processed meat might increase the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer
- consuming preserved non-starchy vegetables might increase the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer
- consuming a greater intake of non-starchy vegetables might decrease the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer
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 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: