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Home > Living Well > Health Library > Childhood Nasopharyngeal Cancer Treatment (PDQ®): Treatment - Health Professional Information [NCI]
This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.
Nasopharyngeal carcinoma arises in the lining of the nasal cavity and pharynx, and it accounts for about one-third of all cancers of the upper airways in children.[1,2]
Nasopharyngeal carcinoma is very uncommon in children younger than 10 years but increases in incidence to 0.8 cases per 1 million per year in children aged 10 to 14 years and 1.3 cases per million per year in children aged 15 to 19 years.[3,4,5]
The incidence of nasopharyngeal carcinoma is characterized by racial and geographic variations, with an endemic distribution among well-defined ethnic groups, such as inhabitants of some areas in North Africa and the Mediterranean basin, and, particularly, Southeast Asia. In the United States, the incidence of nasopharyngeal carcinoma is higher in Black children and adolescents younger than 20 years.[4,5]
Nasopharyngeal carcinoma is strongly associated with Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection. In addition to the serological evidence of infection in more than 98% of patients, EBV DNA is present as a monoclonal episome in the nasopharyngeal carcinoma cells, and tumor cells can have EBV antigens on their cell surface. The circulating levels of EBV DNA and serologic documentation of EBV infection may aid in the diagnosis. Specific HLA subtypes, such as the HLA A2Bsin2 haplotype, are associated with a higher risk of nasopharyngeal carcinoma.
Three histologic subtypes of nasopharyngeal carcinoma are recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO):
Children with nasopharyngeal carcinoma are more likely to have WHO type II or type III disease.[1,2]
Signs and symptoms of nasopharyngeal carcinoma include the following:[1,2]
Given the rich lymphatic drainage of the nasopharynx, bilateral cervical lymphadenopathy is often the first sign of disease. The tumor spreads locally to adjacent areas of the oropharynx and may invade the skull base, resulting in cranial nerve palsy or difficulty with movements of the jaw (trismus).
Distant metastatic sites may include the bones, lungs, and liver.
Diagnostic tests will determine the extent of the primary tumor and the presence of metastases. Visualization of the nasopharynx by an otolaryngologist using nasal endoscopy and magnetic resonance imaging of the head and neck can be used to determine the extent of the primary tumor.
A diagnosis can be made from a biopsy of the primary tumor or enlarged lymph nodes of the neck. Nasopharyngeal carcinomas must be distinguished from all other cancers that can present with enlarged lymph nodes and from other types of cancer in the head and neck area. Thus, diseases such as thyroid cancer, rhabdomyosarcoma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma including Burkitt lymphoma, and Hodgkin lymphoma must be considered, as well as benign conditions such as nasal angiofibroma, which usually presents with epistaxis in adolescent males, infectious lymphadenitis, and Rosai-Dorfman disease.
Evaluation of the chest and abdomen by computed tomography (CT) and bone scan is performed to determine whether there is metastatic disease. Fluorine F 18-fludeoxyglucose positron emission tomography (PET)–CT may also be helpful in the evaluation of potential metastatic lesions.
Tumor staging is performed using the tumor-node-metastasis (TNM) classification system of the American Joint Committee on Cancer.[1,2]
More than 90% of children and adolescents with nasopharyngeal carcinoma present with advanced disease (stage III/IV or T3/T4).[3,4] Population-based studies have reported that patients younger than 20 years had a higher incidence of advanced-stage disease than did adult patients.[5,6] However, less than 10% of children and adolescents with nasopharyngeal carcinoma presented with distant metastases at diagnosis.[3,4,7]
The overall survival of children and adolescents with nasopharyngeal carcinoma has improved over the last four decades; with state-of-the-art multimodal treatment, 5-year survival rates exceed 80%.[1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8] After controlling for stage, children with nasopharyngeal carcinoma have significantly better outcomes than do adults.[1,7] However, the intensive use of chemotherapy and radiation therapy results in significant acute and long-term morbidities, including subsequent neoplasms.[1,2,3,6]
Treatment of nasopharyngeal carcinoma is multimodal and includes the following:
The following two modifications of this approach have been investigated:
The outcome of patients with relapsed nasopharyngeal carcinoma is poor, and most patients present with distant metastases. However, long-term remissions can be achieved with conventional chemotherapy. In a retrospective review of 14 pediatric patients with relapsed nasopharyngeal carcinoma who were treated with varying chemotherapy regimens, the 3-year event-free survival was 34%, and the overall survival was 44%.
Given the unique pathogenesis of nasopharyngeal carcinoma, immunotherapy has been explored for patients with refractory disease, as follows:
Information about National Cancer Institute (NCI)–supported clinical trials can be found on the NCI website. For information about clinical trials sponsored by other organizations, refer to the ClinicalTrials.gov website.
The following is an example of a national and/or institutional clinical trial that is currently being conducted:
Tumor tissue from progressive or recurrent disease must be available for molecular characterization. Patients with tumors that have molecular variants addressed by treatment arms included in the trial will be offered treatment on Pediatric MATCH. Additional information can be obtained on the NCI website and ClinicalTrials.gov website.
Cancer in children and adolescents is rare, although the overall incidence of childhood cancer has been slowly increasing since 1975. Referral to medical centers with multidisciplinary teams of cancer specialists experienced in treating cancers that occur in childhood and adolescence should be considered for children and adolescents with cancer. This multidisciplinary team approach incorporates the skills of the following health care professionals and others to ensure that children receive treatment, supportive care, and rehabilitation that will achieve optimal survival and quality of life:
(Refer to the PDQ Supportive and Palliative Care summaries for specific information about supportive care for children and adolescents with cancer.)
Guidelines for pediatric cancer centers and their role in the treatment of pediatric patients with cancer have been outlined by the American Academy of Pediatrics. At these pediatric cancer centers, clinical trials are available for most types of cancer that occur in children and adolescents, and the opportunity to participate in these trials is offered to most patients and their families. Clinical trials for children and adolescents diagnosed with cancer are generally designed to compare potentially better therapy with therapy that is currently accepted as standard. Most of the progress made in identifying curative therapy for childhood cancers has been achieved through clinical trials. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
Dramatic improvements in survival have been achieved for children and adolescents with cancer. Between 1975 and 2010, childhood cancer mortality decreased by more than 50%. Childhood and adolescent cancer survivors require close monitoring because cancer therapy side effects may persist or develop months or years after treatment. (Refer to the PDQ summary on Late Effects of Treatment for Childhood Cancer for specific information about the incidence, type, and monitoring of late effects in childhood and adolescent cancer survivors.)
Childhood cancer is a rare disease, with about 15,000 cases diagnosed annually in the United States in individuals younger than 20 years. The U.S. Rare Diseases Act of 2002 defines a rare disease as one that affects populations smaller than 200,000 persons. Therefore, all pediatric cancers are considered rare.
The designation of a rare tumor is not uniform among pediatric and adult groups. Adult rare cancers are defined as those with an annual incidence of fewer than six cases per 100,000 people, and they are estimated to account for up to 24% of all cancers diagnosed in the European Union and about 20% of all cancers diagnosed in the United States.[5,6] Also, the designation of a pediatric rare tumor is not uniform among international groups, as follows:
Most cancers within subgroup XI are either melanomas or thyroid cancer, with the remaining subgroup XI cancer types accounting for only 1.3% of cancers in children aged 0 to 14 years and 5.3% of cancers in adolescents aged 15 to 19 years.
These rare cancers are extremely challenging to study because of the low incidence of patients with any individual diagnosis, the predominance of rare cancers in the adolescent population, and the lack of clinical trials for adolescents with rare cancers.
Information about these tumors may also be found in sources relevant to adults with cancer such as the PDQ summary on Nasopharyngeal Cancer Treatment (Adult).
The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.
Editorial changes were made to this summary.
This summary is written and maintained by the PDQ Pediatric Treatment Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of NCI. The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or NIH. More information about summary policies and the role of the PDQ Editorial Boards in maintaining the PDQ summaries can be found on the About This PDQ Summary and PDQ® - NCI's Comprehensive Cancer Database pages.
Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary for health professionals provides comprehensive, peer-reviewed, evidence-based information about the treatment of childhood nasopharyngeal cancer. It is intended as a resource to inform and assist clinicians who care for cancer patients. It does not provide formal guidelines or recommendations for making health care decisions.
Reviewers and Updates
This summary is reviewed regularly and updated as necessary by the PDQ Pediatric Treatment Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Board members review recently published articles each month to determine whether an article should:
Changes to the summaries are made through a consensus process in which Board members evaluate the strength of the evidence in the published articles and determine how the article should be included in the summary.
The lead reviewers for Childhood Nasopharyngeal Cancer Treatment are:
Any comments or questions about the summary content should be submitted to Cancer.gov through the NCI website's Email Us. Do not contact the individual Board Members with questions or comments about the summaries. Board members will not respond to individual inquiries.
Levels of Evidence
Some of the reference citations in this summary are accompanied by a level-of-evidence designation. These designations are intended to help readers assess the strength of the evidence supporting the use of specific interventions or approaches. The PDQ Pediatric Treatment Editorial Board uses a formal evidence ranking system in developing its level-of-evidence designations.
Permission to Use This Summary
PDQ is a registered trademark. Although the content of PDQ documents can be used freely as text, it cannot be identified as an NCI PDQ cancer information summary unless it is presented in its entirety and is regularly updated. However, an author would be permitted to write a sentence such as "NCI's PDQ cancer information summary about breast cancer prevention states the risks succinctly: [include excerpt from the summary]."
The preferred citation for this PDQ summary is:
PDQ® Pediatric Treatment Editorial Board. PDQ Childhood Nasopharyngeal Cancer Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/hp/child/nasopharyngeal-treatment-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>.
Images in this summary are used with permission of the author(s), artist, and/or publisher for use within the PDQ summaries only. Permission to use images outside the context of PDQ information must be obtained from the owner(s) and cannot be granted by the National Cancer Institute. Information about using the illustrations in this summary, along with many other cancer-related images, is available in Visuals Online, a collection of over 2,000 scientific images.
Based on the strength of the available evidence, treatment options may be described as either "standard" or "under clinical evaluation." These classifications should not be used as a basis for insurance reimbursement determinations. More information on insurance coverage is available on Cancer.gov on the Managing Cancer Care page.
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Last Revised: 2021-06-22
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