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About nasal and paranasal sinus cancer

Cancer can start in the lining of the space behind the nose (nasal cavity) or the nearby air cavities (paranasal sinuses) and sometimes spread to lymph nodes.

The nasal cavity

Your nostrils open into the space behind the nose (nasal cavity). The nasal cavity runs above the roof of your mouth and curves down to connect with your mouth at the back of your throat. It warms and moistens the air we breathe and helps filter out harmful bacteria.

The area where the nose and throat meet is called the nasopharynx. If you have cancer here, it’s called nasopharyngeal cancer. It is different from nasal and paranasal sinus cancer.

Diagram showing the position of the nasal cavity

The nasal cavity is close to your eyes, ears and mouth. Cancer in this area can sometimes cause pressure and pain in these structures. This could affect your vision and ability to open your mouth.

Cancer in the nasal cavity can also affect your sense of smell.

The paranasal sinuses

Paranasal means around or near your nose. Sinuses are spaces or small tunnels. Paranasal sinuses are small, air filled spaces within the bones of your face. They are above and behind your nose and behind your cheekbones. They give your voice its clarity and tone and lighten the weight of your skull. There are several pairs of sinuses and cancer can develop in any of them.

You have:

  • maxillary sinuses behind your cheeks, below your eyes and on either side of your nose
  • frontal sinuses at the very top of your nose close to the eyebrows
  • ethmoid sinuses above the nose and between the eyes
  • sphenoid sinuses behind the ethmoid sinuses, above the nasopharynx and between your eyes

These sinuses fill with mucus and become blocked during infections like a cold. This causes the pressure and pain you feel around your nose and eyes when you have a cold (sinus pain).

Diagram showing the position of the sinuses

The lymph nodes in your neck

Like other parts of the body, the head and neck contains lymph nodes (also called lymph glands). These small, bean shaped glands are part of the lymphatic system. Lymph nodes are often the first place cancer cells spread to when they break away from a tumour.

Diagram showing the lymph nodes in the head and neck

There are major groups of lymph nodes in the neck. Nasal and paranasal sinus cancers can spread to these nodes. 

You may need an operation to remove lymph nodes. This will be on the same side of your neck as the cancer.

More rarely, a surgeon may suggest removing nodes from both sides of your neck. These operations are called neck dissections. You may hear your surgeon call this type of surgery a radical neck dissection.

A specialist in human tissues (a pathologist) examines the lymph nodes to see if they have cancer cells. This is part of finding out how advanced the cancer is, in other words, its stage. It helps doctors decide on the most suitable treatment for you.

Last reviewed: 
15 Nov 2017
  • Cancer and its management (6th edition)
    J Tobias and D Hochhauser
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2010

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