Risk Factors for Nasopharyngeal Cancer

A risk factor can be anything that influences the development of any cancer. But having a risk factor, or many, does not give certainty of having particular cancer. Some people with no risk factors can also develop cancer. 

Two substances significantly increase the risk of developing NPC:

  • Alcohol- Frequent and heavy consumption of alcohol can be a risk factor for head and neck cancer. Using alcohol and tobacco together raises this risk even more, although the influence in NPC is less than that for other head and neck cancers.
  • Tobacco- Tobacco use, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, and snuff, is the single most significant risk factor for head and neck cancer. About 85% of head and neck cancer is in line with tobacco use. Smokers with NPC are likely to have the squamous cell type. Secondhand smoke can also increase a person’s risk of developing head and neck cancer.

Other factors that may increase a person’s risk of NPC include –

  • Geography/ancestry- NPC is most common in Hong Kong and southeast China. When people move away from high-risk areas to countries where NPC is less common, the upcoming generations of their families have a slow lowering in their inherited risk of NPC.
  • Gender- Men are two times more likely than women to develop NPC.
  • Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) – Exposure to EBV plays a role in causing NPC. EBV is commonly known as the virus that causes mononucleosis or ‘mono.’
  • Age – The risk of NPC increases as a person ages. However, about 50% of the people diagnosed with NPC are younger than 55. A person of any age can be diagnosed with NPC.
  • Environmental exposure – Extensive exposure to dust and smoke may increase the risk of NPC.
  • Marijuana – Recent research suggests that people who have used marijuana may be at higher risk for head and neck cancer.

Eating habits – Eating large amounts of salt-cured fish and meats regularly increases a person’s risk of developing NPC.