Symptoms, risk factors, treatment and outlook

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 carcinomas.

Sinus cancers are rare, accounting for approximately 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 according to the type of cells in which they develop.

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

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

Early Symptoms of Sinus Cancer

First symptoms most of the time include:

Later symptoms if left untreated

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

It is not completely known why sinus cancer develops. It is thought that some genetic changes could cause cells to grow out of control, but so far few genetic changes have been discovered for this type of cancer.

According to American Cancer Society, genes inherited from your parents are not thought to cause many types of sinus or nasal cancer. Genetic changes linked to sinus cancer are generally acquired throughout your life.

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

  • Smoking. Tobacco use is the greatest risk factor for developing head and neck cancers. Evidence suggests it increases the risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma of the sinuses by two to three.
  • Sex and gender. Men over 40 are most at risk of developing sinus cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, which groups people into male and female categories, men are approximately twice as likely to develop it as women.
  • Human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is a group of over 200 viruses that cause warts. Most HPV infections do not cause cancer. However some high-risk HPV infections that persist for many years can lead to cellular changes that can develop into cancer.
  • Race. According to American Cancer Societywhites are more likely to develop nasal cavity cancers than blacks.
  • Exposure to chemicals. People who regularly breathe in certain chemicals at work appear to be at increased risk for sinus cancer. These include:

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 potential sinus cancer symptoms that don’t have an obvious cause, even though they’re unlikely to be caused by cancer.

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

Getting diagnosed with sinus cancer starts with visiting a primary healthcare professional. If they suspect cancer, they will refer you to an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor for further testing.

These tests may include:

  • Endoscopy. An endoscope is a long, thin tube with a camera and a light that is 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 laboratory analysis. A biopsy can be performed during an endoscopy.
  • Fine needle aspiration. A fine needle aspiration involves using a very fine needle to remove a small amount of fluid from a lymph node to see if cancer has spread there.
  • 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 such as the size and location of the tumor in the sinus, its stage, your general health, and the type of cancer. Treatment options include:

  • Operation. The tumor can be surgically removed through a procedure called endoscopic microsurgery. During this procedure, the cancer is removed through the nose using an endoscope.
  • Radiotherapy. Radiation therapy can 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 certain 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 better when the cancer hasn’t spread beyond your sinuses.

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 your response to treatment, including your age and general health. Ethnicity and race can also influence outlook.

In a study 2021, the researchers found that, compared to whites, blacks, American Indians, and Alaskan Natives had higher death rates from sinus cancer. They also found that Hispanics were more likely to be diagnosed with advanced cancer.

It is likely that several factors contributed to these differences, including socioeconomic status and access to health care. Importantly, the stress of racism, discrimination, and persistent racist systems can play a role in these healthcare inequities.

Sinus cancer develops in the cavities behind the nose where mucus forms. It is often not detected until it is advanced enough to cause noticeable symptoms. Early symptoms can mimic those of less serious conditions like a 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.

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