Nasal cancer is rare, but it can be aggressive. Early diagnosis and treatment can often help keep it from spreading.

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Nasal cancer, also known as nasal cavity cancer or paranasal sinus cancer, can include many types of cancerous tumors. The specific type of nasal cancer largely determines how quickly it is likely to grow. Regardless of the kind of tumor you have, getting treatment as soon as possible gives you the best chance of preventing it from spreading to other parts of your body.

The speed at which a nasal cancer will grow can’t always be predicted accurately. Most, but not all, nasal cancers tend to be slow-growing. For example, squamous cell carcinomas can spread to other parts of the body (metastasize), but according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, rates are low. The chances of spread increase if the tumor is larger.

That’s encouraging news for many people with nasal cancer, as the Canadian Cancer Society reports that about 80% of all cancers affecting the nasal cavity and the paranasal sinuses are squamous cell carcinomas.

Nasal cancer is uncommon, accounting for only about 3–5% of all cancers in the head or neck, according to the American Cancer Society. Though it is rare, nasal cancer can still take many forms. Some of the most common types of nasal cancer include:

Early nasal cancer symptoms often resemble those of a sinus infection or a common cold. According to the American Cancer Society, some of the most common symptoms are:

  • blockage on one side of your nose
  • ear pain or pressure
  • facial pain or numbness
  • headache
  • lump on your face, inside your nose, or in the roof of your mouth
  • nasal congestion that never improves or continues to worsen
  • nosebleeds
  • pain or numbness in or around your mouth
  • pus draining from your nose
  • swollen lymph nodes in your neck
  • watery eyes

Many of these symptoms can apply to other conditions, so it’s important to get a medical evaluation to rule out certain causes or confirm a diagnosis. Keep in mind that not all of these symptoms may be present if you have nasal cancer.

Doctors will not usually be able to detect nasal cancer until there have been noticeable symptoms. Diagnosing nasal cancer usually starts with a physical examination of your head and neck. Your doctor will look and feel for any lumps, masses, or signs of suspicious tissue in your nose, sinuses, ears, and mouth.

Your doctor may also order imaging tests, including one or more of the following:

  • CT scan: A CT scan can help detect a tumor and look for signs that the cancer has spread to nearby tissue and lymph nodes.
  • MRI: An MRI can also detect the size of the tumor and reveal whether it has spread to nearby areas.
  • PET scan: PET scan is usually only for if you have already received a diagnosis or to see if the cancer has metastasized.
  • X-ray: Your doctor may take X-rays of your head during diagnosis.

The most accurate diagnostic tool is a biopsy of tissue that may be cancerous. Your doctor will remove a small amount of tissue that they will send to a lab to determine if it is cancerous and to identify the cancer type.

As with any cancer, the faster the diagnosis and treatment of nasal cancer, the better your outlook. The American Cancer Society reports that even though there is currently an overall relative 5-year survival rate of 59% for all stages of nasal cancer, the 5-year relative survival rate for nasal cancer localized to just the nasal cavity is 86%.

The outlook is getting increasingly better due to ongoing improvements in detection and treatment practices.

What are the first signs of nose cancer?

One of the first main symptoms is nasal blockage that can’t be eased by blowing your nose. You may also get nosebleeds when trying to blow your nose, though nosebleeds can also occur at any time with nasal cancer.

Where does nose cancer usually start?

It usually starts in the soft tissue lining the nasal cavity immediately behind the nose or in the paranasal sinuses, located around the eyes.

Can you beat nasal cancer?

Doctors can treat nasal cancer, often with surgery to remove the tumor. Chemotherapy and radiation treatment may also be helpful in addition to surgery or on their own. As with most cancers, though, there is always a slight risk that it might return even after successful initial treatment.

What causes nasal cancer?

It’s not always clear why a person develops nasal cancer. There may be a genetic cause in some cases. Exposure to certain airborne chemicals or other toxins in the environment may also lead to this type of cancer.

Because cancers that start in the nasal cavity and sinuses are so close to the brain, eyes, and the nerves and arteries of the face and head, surgery and other treatments carry a higher risk than cancer procedures in some other parts of the body. Working with a healthcare team at a hospital with extensive experience in nasal cancer surgeries is recommended.