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Cancer Genetics

Nasopharyngeal Cancer

01/17/2001

Question:

What is the cause of nasopharyngeal cancer? I have a patron whose son died from this disease. She has already contacted the National Cancer Information Service and has received all their information. However, she still does not know the cause for the disease.

Answer:

The exact cause of most cancers is very difficult to pinpoint. Nasopharyngeal cancer (NPC) is much more common in three geographic areas: southern China and surrounding areas, Greenland, and Alaska (especially among Eskimos). North Africa also has a higher incidence of NPC. In parts of southern China, NPC is the most common cancer reaching an incidence of 42 cases per 100,000 inhabitants per year. There are three main theories about the cause of NPC: 1. Ebstein Barr Virus (EBV) - NPC is the only human tumor in which EBV is found 100% of the time. [EBV in the United States is known primarily as the cause of infectious mononucleosis.] Because of this finding, some researchers believe that there are certain strains of EBV in the geographical areas listed above that lead to a higher risk for NPC. However, despite a lot of research, this finding has not been confirmed.

2. Environmental, dietary, & lifestyle factors - There are correlations between the occurrence of NPC and a diet high in preserved foods, especially salted fish. Salted fish contain high concentrations of certain carcinogens that could lead to an increased risk for cancer. However, there is no direct evidence that this is the cause of NPC and researchers would have to explain why the incidence of NPC is low in many areas with high consumption of salted fish (e.g. Japan and Finland).

3. Genetics - In areas with a high incidence of NPC, it is common to find many individuals within the same family who have NPC. If there are certain gene mutations that are more common in China, Greenland and Alaska, this could explain the high incidence of NPC in these areas. Some researchers, including a team at Ohio State University, are interested in looking for genes that can cause an increased risk for NPC. But, this theory has also not been proven.

It is also possible that NPC is caused by the interaction of all these factors; genes, dietary factors and EBV. Hopefully researchers will learn more about this cancer in the near future. Meanwhile, if your patron happens to have a family history of NPC, he/she may want to check out the available research studies, such as the one at Ohio State (see the website below).

Related Resources:

Active Research Protocols

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Response by:

Heather L Hampel, MS, CGC Heather L Hampel, MS, CGC
Cancer Genetic Counselor
College of Medicine
The Ohio State University

Judith A Westman, MD Judith A Westman, MD
Associate Professor, Clinical Internal Medicine, Pediatrics and Medical Biochemistry
College of Medicine
The Ohio State University