There are different types of cancer of the lining of the space behind the nose (nasal cavity) or the nearby air cavities (paranasal sinuses).

Cancers from different types of cells

Several layers of tissue make up each part of the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses. Each layer contains many different types of cells.

Different cancers can develop from each type of cell. Recognising these differences helps doctors decide on how best to treat the cancer.

Cancerous and non cancerous tumours

Tumours are groups of abnormal cells that form lumps or growths. Tumours of the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses can be:

  • non cancerous (benign)
  • cancerous (malignant)

There are several types of non cancerous tumours in these areas. Some of these include:

  • papillomas
  • adenomas
  • fibromas
  • angiofibromas and haemangiomas which have growths of small blood vessels

Papillomas are wart like growths that are not cancers. There is a small risk that they might turn into a squamous cell cancer.

Nasal polyps which grow in both sides of the nose and which are linked with chronic rhinosinusitis are caused by inflammation. Chronic rhinosinusitis means long-term inflammation of the nasal and paranasal sinuses. Once their diagnosis is confirmed, they don’t usually become cancerous (malignant).

Malignant nasal and paranasal sinus tumours are cancers. In time, they can grow deep into the surrounding tissue and spread to other parts of the body.

There are many types of cancerous and non cancerous nasal and paranasal sinus tumours. Many are very rare. Below are some of the common nasal and paranasal cancers.

Squamous cell cancer (carcinoma)

Squamous cells are the flat, skin like cells that cover the lining of the mouth, nose, voice box (larynx), thyroid and throat. Carcinoma means cancer. So squamous cell carcinoma is cancer that starts in these cells.

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is the most common type of head and neck cancer. More than 60 out of 100 (60%) of nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancers are SCCs.

Other types of nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancers

Squamous cell cancer is by far the most common, but not the only type of cancer that can develop in the nose and nasal sinuses.


Adenocarcinomas are the second most common type of cancer in the nose and paranasal sinuses. It affects up to 20 out of every 100 people (20%) diagnosed.

The nasal and ethmoid sinuses are the most common site for adenocarcinoma. Adenocarcinoma starts in the gland cells (seromucous glands) and cells in the surface of the lining inside the nose and sinuses (epithelium). The gland cells produce phlegm (mucus).

The number of adenocarcinomas in males has decreased in recent years as it was mainly linked with the wood-working industry in the past.

Adenoid cystic cancers

Adenoid cystic cancers forms between 5 to 10 out of every 100 (5 to 10%) nasal and paranasal cancers that are diagnosed. They are mostly in the maxillary sinus, followed by the nasal cavity.


Lymphomas are cancers that start in the lymph nodes. There are many lymph nodes in the neck. Painless swelling of a lymph node is the most common symptom of lymphoma. Lymphomas of the nasal and paranasal sinuses form about 6 out of every 100 (6%) nasal and paranasal sinus cancers diagnosed.

If you are looking for information on lymphoma, visit the lymphoma section. Your treatment will be very different to the treatment outlined in this section for head and neck cancer.


Plasmacytomas are tumours made up of plasma cells. Although closely related to myeloma, multiple myeloma is usually not present. Out of all head and neck plasmacytomas, 44 out of every 100 (44%) develop in the nasal and paranasal sinuses.

Visit the myeloma section if you are looking for information on multiple myeloma.


Melanomas develop from the pigment producing cells that give the skin its colour. Melanomas of the head and neck can occur anywhere on the skin, inside the nose or mouth (oral cavity) or in the nasal and paranasal sinuses. Less than 5 out of every 100 (5%) nasal and paranasal cancers are melanomas. This type of melanoma behaves differently from those in the skin.

Olfactory neuroblastomas

Olfactory neuroblastomas are rare tumours found in the nose (nasal cavity). They are more common than adenoid cystic cancers and melanomas. Neuroblastomas develop in the layer of cells (lining) responsible for smell in the top part of the inside of the nose. 

Neuroendocrine carcinomas

Neuroendocrine tumours in the nasal and paranasal sinuses are rare. They form about 5 out of every 100 (5%) nasal and paranasal cancers diagnosed. They begin in specialized cells called neuroendocrine cells. Neuroendocrine cells produce hormones. Some neuroendocrine cancers can produce hormones.

A rare type of neuroendocrine tumour called a small cell neuroendocrine tumour can grow in the ethmoid and maxillary sinuses. It can happen after treatment for retinoblastoma.


Sarcomas develop from the cells that make up soft tissue. They form about 5 out of every 100 (5%) nasal and paranasal sinus cancers. There are many types of nasal and paranasal sinus sarcomas. Some include:

  • fibrosarcomas
  • undifferentiated pleomorphic sarcoma
  • leiomyosarcoma
  • rhabdomyosarcoma