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About cancer of the outer ear

Cancer of the ear is rare. Most of these cancers start in the skin of the outer ear. Between 5 and 10 out of 100 skin cancers (5 - 10%) develop on the ear.

Cancers that develop inside the ear (the middle and inner ear) are very rare.

The ear

There are 3 parts to the ear:

  • the outer ear
  • the middle
  • the inner ear

Another important part of the ear is the bone that surrounds and protects the ear.

The outer ear is the part of the ear we can see. It protects the rest of the ear and helps us collect sound. 

There are 3 parts to the outer ear:

  • the ear flap or pinna
  • the ear canal (meatus)
  • the eardrum (tympanic membrane)

The eardrum vibrates when a sound is made.

Diagram showing the parts of the outer ear

Cancer of the ear canal is very rare. Although the ear canal is part of the outer ear, the symptoms, stages and treatment of ear canal cancer are similar to middle and inner ear cancer.  You can read about cancer that starts in the ear canal on the pages about cancer of the ear canal, middle ear and inner ear.

The bone

The bone that surrounds the ear is called the temporal bone. The ear canal, middle ear and inner ear are all within the temporal bone. The temporal bone is part of the skull above the ear.

One part of the temporal bone is called the mastoid bone. It is the lumpy bit you can feel behind your ear.

The outside of the mastoid bone is a hard solid bone but inside is bone that's shaped like honeycomb. There is air inside the small cavities. They also contain the inner ear and the nerves that control the movement of the face and tongue.

Diagram showing where the temporal bone, mastiod bone and facial nerve are in relation to the ear

Symptoms of cancer of the outer ear

The main symptom is a spot or sore that doesn’t heal within 4 weeks.

Most squamous cell cancers are pink lumps that have a hard scaly surface. They often bleed easily and ulcerate.

You should tell you doctor about any changes to a mole, such as the mole growing, itching or bleeding.

Tests for ear cancer

Your doctor will examine you and you might have blood tests to check your general health.

The only way to confirm a diagnosis of cancer is to take a small amount of tissue (biopsy) from the abnormal area of the ear. This is then examined under a microscope. Before your doctor takes the biopsy you have a local anaesthetic to numb the area so you don’t have any pain.

You might have an MRI scan or a CT scan if the biopsy shows you have cancer. This helps your doctor decide which treatment you need.


The most common type of cancer of the ear is squamous cell carcinomas. Other types of cancer affecting the outer ear include:

  • basal cell cancer
  • melanoma

Stages of cancer of the outer ear

The stage of a cancer tells you how big it is and how far it’s spread. It helps your doctor decide which treatment you need.

The tests and scans you have to diagnose your cancer give some information about the stage. 

Doctors use different staging systems, depending on the type of cancer.

The staging system for cancers of the outer ear is the same as for skin cancer. There are 2 main types of skin cancer. These are melanoma and non melanoma skin cancer. 

Go to staging for non melanoma skin cancer if you have squamous cell or basal cell cancer of the ear.

Go to melanoma staging if you have melanoma cancer of the ear.


The main treatments for cancers that start on the outer ear are surgery and radiotherapy.

Last reviewed: 
16 May 2018
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