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Paranasal Sinus and Nasal Cavity Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)

Patient Version
Last Modified: 09/02/2014

General Information About Paranasal Sinus and Nasal Cavity Cancer



Paranasal sinus and nasal cavity cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity.

Paranasal sinuses

"Paranasal" means near the nose. The paranasal sinuses are hollow, air-filled spaces in the bones around the nose. The sinuses are lined with cells that make mucus, which keeps the inside of the nose from drying out during breathing.

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Anatomy of the paranasal sinuses; drawing shows front and side views of the frontal sinus, ethmoid sinus, maxillary sinus, and sphenoid sinus. The nasal cavity and pharynx (throat) are also shown.
Anatomy of the paranasal sinuses (spaces between the bones around the nose).

There are several paranasal sinuses named after the bones that surround them:

Nasal cavity

The nose opens into the nasal cavity, which is divided into two nasal passages. Air moves through these passages during breathing. The nasal cavity lies above the bone that forms the roof of the mouth and curves down at the back to join the throat. The area just inside the nostrils is called the nasal vestibule. A small area of special cells in the roof of each nasal passage sends signals to the brain to give the sense of smell.

Together the paranasal sinuses and the nasal cavity filter and warm the air, and make it moist before it goes into the lungs. The movement of air through the sinuses and other parts of the respiratory system help make sounds for talking.

Paranasal sinus and nasal cavity cancer is a type of head and neck cancer.

Different types of cells in the paranasal sinus and nasal cavity may become malignant.

The most common type of paranasal sinus and nasal cavity cancer is squamous cell carcinoma. This type of cancer forms in the squamous cells (thin, flat cells) lining the inside of the paranasal sinuses and the nasal cavity.

Other types of paranasal sinus and nasal cavity cancer include the following:

Being exposed to certain chemicals or dust in the workplace can increase the risk of paranasal sinus and nasal cavity cancer.

Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk. Risk factors for paranasal sinus and nasal cavity cancer include the following:

  • Being exposed to certain workplace chemicals or dust, such as those found in the following jobs:
    • Furniture-making.
    • Sawmill work.
    • Woodworking (carpentry).
    • Shoemaking.
    • Metal-plating.
    • Flour mill or bakery work.
  • Being infected with human papillomavirus (HPV).
  • Being male and older than 40 years.
  • Smoking.

Signs of paranasal sinus and nasal cavity cancer include sinus problems and nosebleeds.

These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by paranasal sinus and nasal cavity cancer or by other conditions. There may be no signs or symptoms in the early stages. Signs and symptoms may appear as the tumor grows. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Blocked sinuses that do not clear, or sinus pressure.
  • Headaches or pain in the sinus areas.
  • A runny nose.
  • Nosebleeds.
  • A lump or sore inside the nose that does not heal.
  • A lump on the face or roof of the mouth.
  • Numbness or tingling in the face.
  • Swelling or other trouble with the eyes, such as double vision or the eyes pointing in different directions.
  • Pain in the upper teeth, loose teeth, or dentures that no longer fit well.
  • Pain or pressure in the ear.

Tests that examine the sinuses and nasal cavity are used to detect (find) and diagnose paranasal sinus and nasal cavity cancer.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history : An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.

  • Physical exam of the nose, face, and neck: An exam in which the doctor looks into the nose with a small, long-handled mirror to check for abnormal areas and checks the face and neck for lumps or swollen lymph nodes.

  • X-rays of the head and neck: An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.

  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).

  • Biopsy : The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer. There are three types of biopsy:

  • Nasoscopy : A procedure to look inside the nose for abnormal areas. A nasoscope is inserted into the nose. A nasoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. A special tool on the nasoscope may be used to remove samples of tissue. The tissues samples are viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer.

  • Laryngoscopy : A procedure to look at the larynx (voice box) for abnormal areas. A mirror or a laryngoscope (a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing) is inserted through the mouth to see the larynx. A special tool on the laryngoscope may be used to remove samples of tissue. The tissue samples are viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer.

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • Where the tumor is in the paranasal sinus or nasal cavity and whether it has spread.
  • The size of the tumor.
  • The type of cancer.
  • The patient's age and general health.
  • Whether the cancer has just been diagnosed or has recurred (come back).

Paranasal sinus and nasal cavity cancers often have spread by the time they are diagnosed and are hard to cure. After treatment, a lifetime of frequent and careful follow-up is important because there is an increased risk of developing a second kind of cancer in the head or neck.