Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancers are types of head and neck cancers. Head and neck cancers can have many different names depending on where the cancer starts. Cancer starts when cells in the body begin to grow out of control.
Both types are covered here because these 2 structures are close to each other.
Since the head and neck area has so many organs in a small place, knowing what type of head and neck cancer you have can be confusing. Ask your doctor to write down the exact kind of cancer you have and show you where it is on a picture. To learn more about how cancer starts and spreads, see What Is Cancer?
The nose opens into the nasal cavity. This cavity is a space that runs along the top of the roof of the mouth (the palate, which separates your nose from your mouth) and then turns slightly downward to join the nasopharynx (the upper part of the throat).
Sinuses are small air-filled spaces in the bones that are connected to the nasal cavity. They are called paranasal because they are around the nose. The different sinuses are named depending on which bones they are in:
The sinuses are normally filled with air. When you have a cold or sinus infection the sinuses can become blocked (obstructed) and filled with mucus and pus, which can be uncomfortable. This mucous can drain from your sinuses into your nasal cavity.
To see more details of the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses, explore the 3D interactive color model .
The nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses do many things:
The nasal cavity and the paranasal sinuses are lined by a layer of mucus-producing tissue (mucosa). The mucosa has many types of cells, including:
Other types of cells in the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses, including bone and cartilage cells, can also become cancer.
Cancer can start from any type of cell that makes up the mucosa, and each type of cancer acts and grows differently.
Each of these types of cancer has a distinct behavior and outlook. They cannot all be treated the same way. Many of them rarely affect the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses, so they've been hard to study. Because of this, doctors must base treatment decisions on their experience with similar cancers in other parts of the head and neck.
Some growths in the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses are not cancers, but they could still cause problems.
Nasal polyps are abnormal growths inside the nasal cavity or paranasal sinuses. Most nasal polyps are benign (not cancer) and are caused by some type of chronic (long-lasting) inflammation in the nose. Using exams and tests, doctors can often tell benign polyps from cancer. But in some cases, polyps need to be closely checked to be sure. Polyps usually have a teardrop shape and a smooth surface. Small polyps that aren't causing problems might not need treatment. Larger polyps that cause problems might need to be treated with medicine or surgery.
Papillomas are warts that can grow inside the nasal cavity or paranasal sinuses and destroy healthy tissue. They usually have a bumpy surface. Papillomas are not cancer, but sometimes a squamous cell carcinoma will start in a papilloma. Because of the risk of cancer, papillomas in the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses are removed by surgery.
Inverted papilloma. This type of papilloma grows inward and into the underlying bone. Even though an inverted papilloma is classified as a benign tumor, locally it can act aggressively like a cancer. It tends to recur (come back) and can become cancer. Inverted papillomas are often treated with the same type of surgery that's used for cancer.
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Mendenhall WM, Dziegielewski PT, Pfister DG. Chapter 45- Cancer of the Head and Neck. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2019.
National Cancer Institute. Paranasal Sinus and Nasal Cavity Cancer Treatment (PDQ)–Patient Version. November 06, 2019. Accessed at www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/patient/paranasal-sinus-treatment-pdq on November 13, 2020.
Thompson LDR, Franchi A. New tumor entities in the 4th edition of the World Health Organization classification of head and neck tumors: Nasal cavity, paranasal sinuses and skull base. Virchows Arch. 2018;472(3):315-330. doi:10.1007/s00428-017-2116-0.
Last Revised: April 19, 2021