Nasal and Sinus Cancers

Overview of Nasal and Sinus Cancers

Nasal and sinus cancers are a type of head and neck cancer that occur in the nasal cavity and the sinuses. The nasal cavity is the space just behind your nose where air passes to your throat, and the sinuses are hollow spaces in the bones around the nose. They are filled with air and are connected to the nasal cavity. The sinuses help regulate the temperature and humidity of the air you breathe.

Nasal and sinus cancers can be of various types, depending on the kind of cells they start in. Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common type. It arises from the lining of the nasal cavity or sinuses.

Symptoms of nasal and sinus cancers can vary but often include blockages in one side of your nose that do not clear, nosebleeds, decreased sense of smell, mucus draining from the nose or down the throat, swelling or other trouble with your eyes, pain or pressure in one of your ears, a lump or sore inside your nose that doesn’t heal, and pain or swelling in your face, forehead, or roof of your mouth. A lump in your neck may also be a sign of a sinus or nasal cancer.

The exact cause of these cancers is not known. Still, certain factors can increase the risk of developing these cancers. These include:

  • Smoking and use of tobacco
  • Exposure to certain chemicals or dust in the workplace, such as wood dust, nickel, or chromium
  • Previous radiation therapy to the head or neck

Diagnosing nasal and sinus cancers typically involves a physical examination, imaging tests (like CT scans or MRIs), nasal endoscopy (using a small camera to view the inside of your nose and sinuses), and sometimes a biopsy, where a small tissue sample is taken and examined under a microscope.

The treatment depends on several factors, including the type, size, location of the cancer, and whether it has spread. Common treatments include surgery to remove the tumor(s), radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.

Types of Nasal and Sinus Cancers

Nasal and sinus cancers can be classified based on where they originate and the type of cells involved.

  • Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common type of nasal and sinus cancer. It starts in the squamous cells, the thin, flat cells lining the inside of the nasal cavity and sinuses. These cells are part of the epithelium, the tissue covering surfaces and organs throughout the body.
  • Nasopharyngeal carcinomas are a subtype of squamous cell carcinoma that arise in the back of the nose, near the adenoid tonsils. The exact cause of this cancer is not fully understood, but it’s linked to genetic factors (most people who contract it are of Asian descent), viral infections (like Epstein-Barr virus), and certain environmental exposures.
  • Adenocarcinomas begin in the glandular cells responsible for making and releasing mucus and other substances. This type of cancer is less common and can occur in the sinuses. People exposed to certain types of wood dust are particularly susceptible.
  • Melanoma of the nasal cavity and sinuses is rare. Melanoma usually starts in skin cells that produce pigment, but it can also begin in other pigmented tissues, including the lining of the nose and sinuses.
  • Sarcomas in the nasal and sinus areas are rare. They can arise from various tissue types, including bone, cartilage, and muscle. The specific type of sarcoma is named after the tissue of origin, such as osteosarcoma (bone) or chondrosarcoma (cartilage).
  • Esthesioneuroblastoma, or olfactory neuroblastoma, is a rare cancer that starts in the olfactory nerves, which are involved in the sense of smell. It occurs in the upper part of the nasal cavity.
  • Lymphoma can occasionally occur in the nasal cavity and sinuses. However, it’s more commonly found in lymph nodes throughout the body. Lymphomas are cancers of the lymphatic system, part of the immune system.

Each type of nasal and sinus cancer can have different characteristics, treatment options, and outcomes depending on its specific location, size, and spread. Treatment often involves surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of these methods.

Symptoms of Nasal and Sinus Cancers

Your nose and sinuses help you inhale, exhale, and filter the air going to your lungs. Nasal and sinus cancers are rare conditions where unusual growths form in these spaces. These growths can cause different symptoms, depending on where they are and how big they get.

Not all types of nasal and sinus cancers cause the same constellation of symptoms, and the disease can present with different symptoms in different people. In some instances, the cancer may be discovered incidentally before it has a chance to cause symptoms.

Here are some of the common signs you might notice:

  • Blocked Nose: One side of your nose might always feel blocked or stuffy, making it hard to breathe through that nostril. While a blocked or stuffy nose is exceedingly common and almost always benign, you should consider seeing a doctor if it persists for more than two weeks.
  • Nosebleeds: You might have nosebleeds, which could be more frequent than you’re used to.
  • Change in Sense of Smell: Your sense of smell might not be as good as it used to be, or you might lose it altogether.
  • Mucus Problems: You might notice more mucus running down the back of your throat, or your nose might always feel runny.
  • Pain or Pressure: There could be pain or pressure in your sinuses, which are the spaces in your face around your nose, or you might feel pain in your teeth or upper jaw.
  • Swelling or Changes in Your Face: You might see or feel swelling around your eyes, under your skin, or in your face that doesn’t go away.
  • Vision Problems: In some cases, if the tumor is near your eyes, it might cause vision problems like double vision.

It’s important to remember that these symptoms can also be caused by more common and less serious conditions, like infections or a deviated septum. However, if you notice these symptoms, especially if they last long or worsen, you should check in with a doctor. A specialist can help determine what’s happening and ensure you get the proper treatment.

Treatments for Nasal and Sinus Cancers

When treating nasal and sinus cancers, doctors have several ways to help manage the condition and aim for the best possible outcome.

photo of head and neck surgeon ameya jategaonkar performing head and neck cancer surgery in an operating room at barrow neurological institute in phoenix arizona


The goal of surgery for nasal and sinus tumors, a type of head and neck cancer surgery, is to carefully remove the cancer cells while trying to keep the surrounding structures as normal as possible. Depending on where the cancer is and how big it has grown, the surgery might be done through the nose (so there are no visible cuts on the face), or it might require opening up the area a bit more to get everything out safely. In some cases, your surgeon might also need to take out some bone or tissue around the cancer to make sure no cancer cells are left behind.

If a large, open operation is needed to remove all of the tumor, then reconstruction surgery may be needed to ensure minimal loss of function and cosmetic appearance.

Radiation Therapy

This treatment uses high-energy beams to target and kill cancer cells. It’s often used when surgery isn’t possible or to eliminate cancer cells that might remain after surgery. Think of it as using a precise laser beam to zap away the bad cells without hurting the good ones around them.


Chemotherapy involves using special medicines to fight cancer. These medicines can kill or stop cancer cells from growing and making more cancer cells. Sometimes, chemotherapy is used before surgery to shrink the tumor and make it easier to remove. Other times, it might be used after surgery to catch any cells left behind or treat cancer that has spread.

Targeted Therapy and Immunotherapy

These newer types of treatments work by targeting specific parts of cancer cells or boosting your body’s immune system to help fight the cancer. Targeted therapy looks for specific markers on cancer cells and attacks those. At the same time, immunotherapy helps your immune system recognize and destroy cancer cells more effectively.

Combining Treatments

Often, a combination of these treatments is the best approach. The exact plan will depend on many factors, including the type and stage of the cancer, its location, and your overall health. The goal is always to treat the cancer as effectively as possible while minimizing side effects and preserving essential functions like breathing, speaking, and appearance.

Common Questions about Nasal and Sinus Cancers

How long can you live with nasal and sinus cancers?

The prognosis, or outlook, for someone with nasal or sinus cancer varies greatly depending on several critical factors, including the type of cancer, its stage (how advanced it is), the location, whether it has spread, and your overall health. Prognosis is often expressed in terms of survival rates, such as the five-year survival rate, which is the percentage of people living at least five years after their cancer diagnosis. It’s important to note that these statistics are based on large groups of people and can’t predict outcomes for any single individual.

Early-stage cancers (where the tumor is small and hasn’t spread) generally have a better prognosis than advanced-stage cancers. Some types of nasal and sinus cancers may have a better prognosis, and the tumor’s location and size can also affect outcomes and treatment options. How well the tumor responds to treatment can also influence survival.

Survival rates are often used to give a general idea of the outlook for a particular type and stage of cancer. These rates are usually based on data from years prior and may only partially reflect the benefits of newer treatments. For nasal and sinus cancers, survival rates can vary widely:

  • The five-year survival rate can be higher for localized cancers detected early.
  • The survival rates tend to be lower for cancers that have spread to nearby tissues, lymph nodes, or other body parts.

While statistics can provide a general picture, they don’t tell the whole story. Advances in cancer treatment, including surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy, have improved outcomes for many people with nasal and sinus cancers. Additionally, factors like the cancer’s specific characteristics and the patient’s overall health are crucial in determining prognosis.

The best source of information about your prognosis is your medical team. They will consider the abovementioned factors to tailor treatment to your situation. They also consider your quality of life, preferences, and values when recommending treatment options.

Remember, every person’s journey with cancer is unique, and there is always hope. Ongoing research and clinical trials continue to seek out new and better ways to treat nasal and sinus cancers, aiming to improve survival rates and the quality of life for those affected.

How common are nasal and sinus cancers?

Nasal and sinus cancer is quite rare. These cancers represent only 1% of all cancers diagnosed annually. For comparison, breast cancers account for more than 12% of all new cancers diagnosed.

In countries like the United States, it’s estimated that there are about 2,000 new cases of nasal and sinus cancer each year, which is a small number compared to more common cancers like breast, lung, or prostate cancer.

Certain factors can increase the risk of developing nasal and sinus cancer, including exposure to certain chemicals (like wood dust in the woodworking industry), smoking, and possibly a history of certain viral infections.

Nasal and sinus cancers can occur at any age but are more commonly diagnosed in people over 40. There’s also a higher incidence in men than women, possibly related to occupational exposures.

Given their rarity, awareness and early detection can be challenging but are crucial for improving outcomes.

Medically Reviewed by Ameya A. Jategaonkar, MD on March 28, 2024

Information and Resources for Nasal and Sinus Cancer

American Cancer Society

American Head and Neck Society

NIH National Cancer Institute Fact Sheet

Group 49
Overall five-year survival rate for all stages of nasal and sinus cancers combined
Group 49
Only 1 percent of all cancers diagnosed annually are nasal and sinus cancers


  1. Moustafa Mourad, Thomas Jetmore, Ameya A. Jategaonkar, Sami Moubayed, Erin Moshier, Mark L. Urken, Epidemiological Trends of Head and Neck Cancer in the United States: A SEER Population Study, J Oral Maxillofac Surg. 2017 Dec;75(12):2562-2572. doi: 10.1016/j.joms.2017.05.008. Epub 2017 May 22. PMID: 28618252.
  2. American Cancer Society. Nasal Cavity (Nose) and Paranasal Sinus Cancer. March 28, 2024.