Surgery for Nasal Cavity and Paranasal Sinus Cancers

For most nasal cavity or paranasal sinus cancers, surgery to remove the cancer (and some of the surrounding bone or other nearby tissues) is a key part of treatment. Often, surgery is used with other treatments, like radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy to get the best results.

The nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses are close to many important nerves, blood vessels, and other structures. The brain, eyes, mouth, and carotid arteries (arteries that supply blood to the brain) are also close by, making surgical planning and surgery itself difficult. The goal of surgery in these areas is to take out the entire tumor and a small amount of normal tissue around it while keeping appearance and function (such as breathing, speech, chewing, and swallowing) as normal as possible. Rebuilding and/or repairing the area around the tumor is an important part of the surgery plan.

Because of the complex nature of these operations and the fact that these cancers are rare, it’s very important to have a surgeon who has experience treating these cancers.

When removing the cancer, the surgeon also tries to take out a rim (margin) of surrounding normal tissue. The tissue that's removed will be checked with a microscope to see if there are cancer cells at the edges. If the edges don’t have cancer cells, the cancer is said to have been removed with negative or clear margins. Negative margins mean that it's less likely that any cancer was left behind. If the edges do have cancer cells, the margins are said to be positive. Positive margins mean that it's more likely that some cancer was left behind. Often this means more treatment, such as more surgery or radiation.

Nasal cavity cancers

Nasal cavity cancers are often removed in a procedure called wide local excision. This means removing the tumor plus an edge of normal tissue around it. The goal is to remove enough tissue so that no cancer cells remain.

If the tumor is in the middle dividing wall of the nasal cavity (the nasal septum), sometimes the entire septum or a large portion of it will be taken out.

If the tumor is in the lateral (side) wall of the nasal cavity, this wall may need to be removed by a procedure called a medial maxillectomy. To do this, the surgeon will usually cut through the skin along the side or edge of the nose and fold the external nose toward the opposite side to see and work on the tumor. Then the side of the nasal cavity can be removed by cutting the bone and soft tissue as needed. Sometimes, if the cancer is in a certain spot, the surgeon can reach the tumor by cutting under the upper lip instead. This approach has the advantage of avoiding any cuts, and maybe scars, on the skin. Ask your head and neck surgeon how your surgery will be done.

If the cancer has reached the skin or deeply invades the tissue of the external nose, part (or all) of the nose may need to be removed. There are many ways to rebuild a nose using tissue from the face or other areas. In some cases, a cosmetic prosthesis (made of artificial materials) may be used to make a new nose.

Paranasal sinus cancers

Operations for paranasal sinus tumors vary, depending on the tumor type, location, size, and growth into other parts of the head and neck.

If the tumor is small and/or it's not cancer (benign) and is only in the ethmoid sinuses, an external ethmoidectomy may be done. The surgeon will cut through the skin on the upper side of the nose next to the upper eyelid. Bone on the inner side of the orbit (eye socket) and nose will be removed to reach tumors inside the ethmoid sinuses.

If the tumor also has grown into the maxillary sinus, a maxillectomy may be done. The type of maxillectomy depends on where the tumor is and whether it has grown into nearby tissues. The surgeon may make an incision (cut) along the side of the nose from the eyebrow or upper eyelid down to or through the upper lip. Or the incision may be made under the upper lip. The bones around the maxillary sinus are cut so that the entire tumor and some surrounding tissue can be taken out in one piece. This operation might remove bone from the hard palate (the roof of the mouth), upper teeth on one side of the mouth, part or all of the orbit (eye socket), part of the cheekbone, and/or the bony part of the upper nose.

If the cancer is a higher stage, has spread into the base of the skull or brain, or is in the ethmoid sinuses, frontal sinuses, and/or the sphenoid sinuses, an operation called a craniofacial resection may be done. This operation is a lot like a maxillectomy except that the surgeon may also remove upper parts of the eye socket and the front base of the skull. This is a major operation that's usually done by a surgical team that includes an otolaryngologist (head and neck surgeon) and a neurosurgeon (a surgeon who operations on the brain, spinal cord, and other nerves).

Endoscopic surgery

In this type of surgery, the surgeon uses an endoscope (a thin, flexible lighted tube that's put into the nose to reach the nasal cavity or sinus) to see and remove the tumor. This way, the surgeon doesn't have to cut through skin and bone to open up the whole cavity. This reduces normal tissue damage. In general, recovering from this type of surgery takes less time. And for some of these cancers, long-term outcomes for endoscopic surgery are as good as, and maybe even better than, other surgeries used to treat these cancers.

Endoscopic surgery is most often used for small tumors. For larger tumors, it may be used to help try to control the tumor in people who are not healthy enough for a bigger operation. Usually it's combined with radiation treatment.

Endoscopic surgery may also be used along with some of the more invasive surgeries listed above. In this case, it may help limit damage to healthy tissues. It also may help the doctor better see the area to try to be sure all of the cancer has been taken out. (You may hear this called endoscopic-assisted surgery.)

Endoscopic approaches to remove nasal and sinus cancers are becoming more common as more surgeons are trained in these techniques. These approaches are best performed by teams of experienced surgeons at specialized centers. Some medical centers (and surgeons) have more experience than others with endoscopic surgery for nasal and sinus cancers. If you're considering endoscopic surgery as a part of your treatment, be sure to ask about your surgeon’s training and experience, which are key to successful endoscopic surgery.

Removing lymph nodes

Cancers of the nasal cavity or paranasal sinuses sometimes spread to the lymph nodes in the neck. Depending on the stage and location of the cancer, these lymph nodes may need to be removed in an operation called a neck dissection.

There are several types of neck dissection procedures.Their goals are to remove lymph nodes known to or likely to contain cancer. The amount of tissue removed depends on the cancer’s size and the extent of spread to lymph nodes.

  • A partial or selective neck dissection removes only a few lymph nodes.
  • A modified radical neck dissection removes most lymph nodes on one side of the neck between the jawbone and collarbone, as well as some muscle and nerve tissue.
  • A radical neck dissection removes nearly all nodes on one side of the neck as well as even more muscles, nerves, and veins.

The most common side effects of any neck dissection are numbness of the ear, weakness in raising the arm above the head, and weakness of the lower lip. These develop when nerves are damaged. After a selective neck dissection, the weakness of the arm and lower lip usually go away after a few months. But if a nerve is removed as part of a radical neck dissection or because of tumor spread, the weakness will be permanent. After any type of neck dissection, physical therapists can teach the patient exercises to improve neck and shoulder movement.

While some swelling is normal after surgery, it should go away over time. When lymph nodes are removed, it changes how fluid drains from the head, face, and neck. The fluid might not be able to drain like it should. This can cause swelling in these areas called lymphedema. This side effect can develop anytime after lymph node dissection, even many years later.

Possible risks and side effects of surgery

All surgery has some risks, including blood clots, infections, complications from anesthesia, and pneumonia. These risks are generally low, but are higher in more complicated operations.

Pain is a common side effect of surgery. It's also common to have nasal drainage and crusting. Sometimes it smells bad. This usually starts getting better about 6 months after surgery, but may last longer if you're getting radiation. 

Surgery for cancers that are large or hard to reach may be very complicated, in which case side effects may include infection, nose bleeds, scarring, problems eating and talking, and vision changes. Surgery also can be disfiguring, especially if bones in the nose or face need to be removed.

Because these cancers tend to not cause problems until they're quite large, they often involve the eye or orbit (the bone and tissue around the eye) by the time they are noticed or cause symptoms. Most of the time the eye can be saved, but sometimes the entire orbit and eyeball needs to be removed to give the best chance for cure.

Because the changes that result are so visible, these surgeries can have a major effect on how people view themselves. The surgeon will take into account how the face will look and function after surgery. But, depending on the extent of the operation needed, you may look different after surgery. This can range from a simple scar on the side of your nose to major changes if nerves, parts of bones, or other structures need to be removed. It’s important to talk with your doctor about these changes before the surgery. Your doctor might be able to help you prepare for them. He or she can also give you an idea about your options, such as reconstructive surgery, tissue grafts, or a prosthesis (man-made replacement). For example, an obturator is a custom-made prosthesis used to help restore function in the nose and mouth. An obturator that replaces the roof of the mouth can help you speak and swallow normally. Noses can be made out of plastic, tinted to match the skin, and attached to the face. All of these things can be a great help to a person’s self-esteem.

More information about Surgery

For more general information about  surgery as a treatment for cancer, see Cancer Surgery.

To learn about some of the side effects listed here and how to manage them, see Managing Cancer-related Side Effects.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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Last Revised: December 1, 2017

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