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The information on this page was reviewed and approved by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on June 1, 2021.

About sinus cancer

Sinus cancer occurs in the nasal cavity and paranasal sinus, spaces behind the nose through which air passes on its way to the throat. Cancer that occurs in the sinus is categorized as head and neck cancer. Cancer occurs when malignant (cancerous) cells form. The most common type of sinus cancer is squamous cell carcinoma, likely because squamous cells are the most common cell type in the head and neck.

Around 2,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with sinus cancer each year. The majority of sinus cancers originate in the paranasal sinuses, with 60-70 percent developing within the maxillary sinuses in the cheekbones. Up to 30 percent of sinus cancers form in the nasal cavity. The ethmoid sinuses, located beside the upper nose and between the eyes, are the third-most common site for sinus tumors. The remaining types of paranasal sinus cancer occur in the frontal sinuses or the sphenoid sinuses, but these locations are comparatively rare.

At Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), our oncologists are trained and experienced in diagnosing and treating all stages of sinus cancer. Our multidisciplinary teams of cancer experts evaluate the disease to determine its type and stage. We use that information to tailor a cancer care treatment plan based on your specific needs and diagnosis, including supportive care therapies to manage potential side effects of the disease and treatment.

What causes sinus cancer?

Certain lifestyle behaviors and environmental factors, such as smoking and exposure to carcinogens, may increase the risk of developing sinus cancer. Risk factors for sinus cancer also depend on the location—as with nasal cavity cancer or paranasal sinus cancer—and the types of cancer involved.

Factors that increase the risk of sinus cancer may include:

  • Workplace exposure to certain chemicals and substances, including woodworking (exposure to wood dust) and working with nickel and other heavy metals
  • Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), known for causing “mono” (mononucleosis) in young adults
  • Smoking and tobacco use
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Exposure to high doses of radiation therapy, particularly in the head or neck region, including radiation for retinoblastoma

Learn about risk factors for sinus cancer

Who gets sinus cancer?

Sinus cancer is diagnosed more often in men than in women. Age is a common factor—nearly four out of five patients diagnosed with sinus cancer are 55 or older.

People who smoke, drink alcohol or have had exposure to heavy metals have an increased risk for developing sinus tumors. According to the National Cancer Institute, 85 percent of people diagnosed with head and neck cancers have used tobacco, particularly cigarettes.

Sinus cancer types

Sinus cancers are classified according to the type of cancer cells involved. Those types include:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma, which originates in the thin, flat cells lining the sinuses, with carcinoma in situ confined to this cellular layer and invasive squamous cell carcinoma spreading more deeply into the tissue
  • Mucosa cell carcinoma, which occurs in the mucous membrane
  • Adenoid cystic cell carcinoma, which is a rare form of sinus cancer that occurs in the minor salivary glands of the paranasal sinuses
  • Acinic cell carcinoma, which develops in the salivary glands, particularly in the parotid gland near the base of each ear
  • Sinonasal undifferentiated carcinoma, which is a rare neoplasm that develops in the epithelium of the nose or sinuses

Another type of cancer mischaracterized as sinus cancer is nasopharyngeal lymphoma. It occurs in the nasopharynx, which makes up the upper part of the throat and connects the nasal cavity behind the nose, near the base of the skull. Nasopharyngeal cancer is categorized as a throat cancer. Many patients mistakenly classify it as sinus cancer because it involves the area behind the nasal cavity.

Learn more about sinus cancer types

Sinus cancer symptoms

The nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses are the most common areas affected by sinus cancers. Symptoms vary depending on where the cancer develops, the size of the tumor and how significantly it spreads.

Symptoms of nasal sinus cancer may include:

  • A mass in the neck beneath the skin
  • Numbness on the side of the nose, upper lip or cheek
  • Headaches
  • Swelling around the eyes
  • Pain behind the nose
  • Pain in the upper teeth
  • A persistent lump or sore inside the nose
  • Lasting changes in vision, such as double vision, or vision loss
  • Tumors
  • Nasal drainage from one side of the nose
  • Tearing from one eye
  • Difficulty breathing due to nasal obstruction on one side of the nose
  • Lump on the face or roof of the mouth
  • Nosebleeds that increase in frequency or amount
  • Decreased sense of smell

Sinus cancers may also cause symptoms that often accompany less serious conditions, like the common cold, including a runny nose, nasal congestion and post-nasal drip.

Learn more about sinus cancer symptoms

Diagnosing sinus cancer

Some evaluations designed for diagnosing sinus cancer include:

  • Biopsy, including incisional biopsy, excisional biopsy, fine needle aspiration (FNA), endoscopic biopsy or open biopsy
  • A physical exam with an endoscope (endoscopy)
  • Imaging tests, such as a computed tomography scan (CT scan), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET)/CT scan or X-ray

Learn about diagnostic procedures for sinus cancer

Sinus cancer treatments

Treatment options for sinus cancer patients may include:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy, including CyberKnife® targeted radiation and intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT)
  • Surgery, including excision, endoscopic sinus surgery, maxillectomy, microvascular reconstruction or free flap microvascular surgery

Learn about treatment options for sinus cancer