Your sinuses are cavities in your skull behind your nose where mucus forms. Sinus cancer is a rare cancer that forms in this area. Various types of cancer can form in your sinuses, but the majority of cases are squamous cell carcinoma.

Sinus cancers are rare, making up about 3 to 5 percent of all head and neck cancers in the United States.

In this article, we take a closer look at this rare type of cancer including potential symptoms, risk factors, and treatment options.

Sinus cancer develops in the cavities behind your nose. Cancers in this region are classified based on the type of cells in which they develop.

Most sinus cancers form in the flat cells that line your sinuses. These types of cancers are called squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and adenocarcinoma (AC) are the most common types of sinus cancer. Together, they account for 60 to 70% of all cancers in the nasal cavity.

Symptoms can vary based on the size and extent of the tumor. They often only appear on one side and can mimic symptoms of less serious conditions like the common cold or a sinus infection.

Early symptoms of sinus cancer

Early symptoms most commonly include:

Later symptoms if left untreated

If left untreated, the tumor can put pressure on your eye, nerves, and other tissue. Later symptoms include:

It’s not completely known why sinus cancer develops. It’s thought that certain gene changes could cause cells to grow out of control, but as of now, few gene changes have been discovered for this type of cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, genes inherited from your parents are not thought to cause many types of sinus or nasal cancer. The gene changes related to sinus cancer are usually acquired throughout your life.

Although researchers don’t know exactly why sinus cancer develops, they’ve discovered some risk factors:

  • Smoking. Tobacco usage is the biggest risk factor for developing head and neck cancers. Evidence suggests that it increases the risk of developing sinus squamous cell carcinoma by two to threefold.
  • Sex and gender. Males over 40 are at the highest risk of developing sinus cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, which groups people in men and women categories, men are about twice as likely to develop it as women.
  • Human papillomavirus virus (HPV). HPV is a group of over 200 viruses that cause warts. Most HPV infections don’t cause cancer. However some high-risk HPV infections that persist for many years can lead to cell changes that may develop into cancer.
  • Race. According to the American Cancer Society, white people are more likely to develop cancers of the nasal cavity than Black people.
  • Chemical exposure. People who regularly breathe in certain chemicals at their workplace seem to be at an increased risk of sinus cancer. These include:
    • wood dust
    • radium
    • mustard gas
    • nickel dust
    • chromium
    • leather dust
    • flour

Symptoms of sinus cancer can often be confused with symptoms of less serious and more common conditions, such as chronic sinusitis or a cold.

It’s a good idea to see your doctor if you develop any potential symptoms of sinus cancer that have no obvious cause, even if they’re unlikely to be caused by cancer.

Catching cancer in the early stages gives you the best chance of successfully treating it.

Getting a sinus cancer diagnosis starts by visiting a primary healthcare professional. If they suspect cancer, they’ll refer you to an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor for further tests.

These tests may include:

  • Endoscopy. An endoscope is a long and thin tube with a camera and light that’s inserted into your nose to allow your doctor to examine your sinuses. The ENT doctor may apply a numbing spray to your nose before starting the procedure.
  • Biopsy. A biopsy involves removing a small amount of tissue for lab analysis. A biopsy may be taken during an endoscopy.
  • Fine-needle aspiration. A fine-needle aspiration involves using a very thin needle to remove a small amount of fluid from a lymph node to see if cancer has spread to it.
  • Imaging. Your doctor may order various types of imaging to examine how far a tumor has grown. Imaging techniques that may be used include:

Treatment for sinus cancer depends on factors like the size and location of the tumor within the sinus, its stage, your overall health, and the type of cancer. Treatment options include:

  • Surgery. The tumor may be removed surgically through a procedure called endoscopic microsurgery. During this procedure, the cancer is removed through your nose with an endoscope.
  • Radiation therapy. Radiation therapy may be used to shrink a tumor before surgery or to kill remaining cells after surgery.
  • Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is a chemical drug therapy used to kill cancer cells. It may be used with radiation therapy to treat some types of sinus cancers, such as melanoma or sarcomas.

The outlook for sinus cancer depends on the specific type of cancer you have.

The 5-year relative survival rate for people with cancers that develop in the nasal cavity or sinuses is 58 percent. The outlook is best when cancer hasn’t spread past your sinuses.

Stage5-year relative survival rate
Localized (cancer has not spread outside the nasal cavity)85%
Regional (cancer has spread outside the nasal cavity to nearby tissues or lymph nodes)52%
Distant (cancer has spread to distant parts of the body)42%

These numbers can give you an estimate of what to expect, but your doctor can give you the most accurate outlook.

Many factors can influence how well you respond to treatment including your age and overall health. Ethnicity and race may also influence outlook.

In a 2021 study, researchers found that compared to white people, Black people, American Indian, and Alaska Natives had higher death rates from sinus cancer. They also found that Hispanics were more likely to be diagnosed with advanced cancer.

It’s likely that multiple factors contributed to these differences including socioeconomic status and access to healthcare. It’s important to note that the stress of enduring racism, discrimination, and racist systems may play a part in these inequities in healthcare.

Sinus cancer develops in the cavities behind your nose where mucus forms. It’s often not detected until it’s advanced enough to cause noticeable symptoms. Early symptoms can mimic those of less serious conditions like the common cold or a sinus infection.

Treatment for sinus cancer usually involves surgery with or without chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Going through cancer treatment can be stressful, but your doctor can help you develop the best treatment plan for your individual situation.