Nasal Cavity and Paranasal Sinus Cancer: Introduction

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 11/2022

ON THIS PAGE: You will find some basic information about these diseases and the parts of the body they may affect. This is the first page of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Nasal Cavity and Paranasal Sinus Cancer. Use the menu to see other pages. Think of that menu as a roadmap for this entire guide.

About the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses

The nasal cavity is the space just behind the nose where air passes on its way to the throat. The paranasal sinuses are air-filled areas that surround the nasal cavity. The paranasal sinuses include:

  • Maxillary sinuses, located in the cheeks

  • Ethmoid sinuses, located on the bridge of the nose between the eyes

  • Frontal sinuses, located above the eyes

  • Sphenoid sinuses, located behind the ethmoids

See this guide's Medical Illustrations section for a basic drawing of the location of the paranasal sinuses.

About nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer

Cancer begins when healthy cells in the body change and grow out of control, forming a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can grow and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor means the tumor can grow but will not spread. A benign tumor usually can be removed without it growing back.

Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer are malignant tumors. They are 2 of the major types of cancer that develop in the head and neck region. They belong to a group of tumors known as head and neck cancer. Although paranasal sinus cancer can develop in any of the sinuses, it usually begins in the maxillary sinus.

Types of nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancers

The nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses contain several types of tissue, and each contains several types of cells. Different cancers can develop from each kind of cell. The differences are important because they determine how fast the cancer can grow and the type of treatment needed.

The nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses are lined by a layer of mucus-producing tissue that contains these types of cells:

  • Squamous epithelial cells

  • Minor salivary gland cells

  • Nerve cells

  • Infection-fighting cells called lymphocytes

  • Blood vessel cells

The types of cancer that may develop from these cells include:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma. This is the most common type of nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer. Squamous cells are flat cells that make up the thin surface layer of the structures of the head and neck.

  • Adenocarcinoma. This is the second most common type of nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer. It begins in gland cells.

  • Melanoma. Melanoma develops from cells called melanocytes that give the skin its color. It is usually an invasive, fast-growing cancer. It only accounts for about 1% of tumors found in this area of the body.

  • Inverted papilloma. These are benign, wart-like growths that may develop into squamous cell carcinoma. Around 10% to 15% of these will develop into cancer.

  • Esthesioneuroblastoma. This type of cancer is related to the nerves that control the sense of smell. It occurs on the roof of the nasal cavity and involves a structure called the cribriform plate. The cribriform plate is a bone located deep in the skull between the eyes and the sinuses. This type of cancer looks similar to neuroendocrine cancer, so it is important to distinguish between them.

  • Midline granuloma. This refers to a group of several unrelated conditions that cause the breakdown of the healthy tissue of the nose, sinuses, and nearby tissues. Some cases are due to immune system problems, and many others are actually a type of lymphoma (see below).

  • Lymphoma. Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system carries lymph, a colorless fluid containing lymphocytes. Lymphoma may develop in the lymph tissue found in the lining of the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses, called the mucosa.

  • Sarcoma. Sarcoma is a type of cancer that begins in muscle, connective tissue, or bone.

Looking for More of an Introduction?

If you would like more of an introduction, explore these related items. Please note that these links will take you to other sections on Cancer.Net:

  • ASCO Answers Fact Sheet: Read a 1-page fact sheet that offers an introduction to head and neck cancer. This free fact sheet is available as a PDF, so it is easy to print.

  • Cancer.Net Blog: Read an ASCO expert’s opinion about what newly diagnosed patients should know about head and neck cancer.

The next section in this guide is Statistics. It helps explain the number of people who are diagnosed with nasal cavity or paranasal sinus cancer, with general survival rates. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.