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About nasal and paranasal sinus cancer

Find out about cancer of the nasal cavity and the nearby air cavities (paranasal sinuses).

The nasal cavity

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

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

Diagram showing the position of the nasal cavity

Because 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, 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

If these sinuses become infected, for example when you have a cold, they fill with mucus and become blocked. 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. This only happens in about 15 out of every 100 (15%) of people diagnosed.

If you do have spread to the lymph nodes, you may need an operation to remove lymph nodes from 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.

Once the surgeon has taken out the lymph nodes, a specialist in human tissues (a pathologist) examines them to see if they contain cancer cells. This is part of finding out how advanced the cancer is, in other words its stage. This is important because it helps doctors decide on the most suitable treatment for you.

Last reviewed: 
02 Jul 2014
  • Cancer and its management (6th edition)
    Tobias J and Hochhauser D
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2010

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