November 8, 2023
November 8, 2023

Sinus Cancer Symptoms: Red Flags and Why Early Detection Is Critical

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Sinus Cancer Symptoms: Red Flags and Why Early Detection Is Critical

Unless they’re inflamed or infected, you probably don't spend much time thinking about your sinuses. You may not know that the intricate networks of air-filled cavities actually play a major role in your well-being. They’re also important to your immune system, producing mucus that helps keep toxins and harmful microorganisms from entering your lungs. 

When you experience physical trauma, sinuses protect your brain by absorbing and dispersing the force. Furthermore, your sinuses can enhance your sense of smell and taste, enriching sensory experiences.

Like most other organs, your sinuses are not immune to cancer. Here, we'll explore common sinus cancer symptoms, red flags, risk factors, and the importance of proactive screening and timely diagnosis.

What Are the Earliest Signs and Symptoms of Sinus Cancer?

Your nasal sinuses are in the nasal cavity, the space inside your nose. Paranasal sinuses are named after their location in the bony areas of your face on each side of your nose and, in the case of frontal sinuses, your forehead. More on this later.

The initial nasal and paranasal sinus cancer symptoms can often be mistaken for less serious conditions, such as more common ailments like a sinus infection or sinusitis. 

Common signs and symptoms may include:

  • Nasal congestion, often on one side of the nose
  • Nosebleeds
  • Decreased sense of smell
  • Pain or numbness in the face, especially around the upper teeth
  • Runny nose or post-nasal drip
  • A sore inside the nose that doesn’t heal
  • Watery eyes
  • Blurry or double-vision 

How Common Is Sinus Cancer?

While paranasal sinus and nasal cavity cancer are relatively rare, forming only a small fraction of head and neck cancers, the incidence has been increasing. Currently, there are about 2,000 cases diagnosed in the U.S. each year. Research suggests that risk factors like human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, exposure to certain chemicals (like formaldehyde), and chronic sinus infections can increase susceptibility.

What Are Some of the Red Flags for Sinus Cancer?

Sinus cancer symptoms: girl kissing her mother

As mentioned, sinus cancer symptoms are easy to miss because they mimic so many other common illnesses. Therefore, it’s important to pay attention to the history of your symptoms. How long have you had a symptom? Did it get better after treating with over-the-counter medication? 

The bottom line is this: if your stuffy nose doesn't get better with normal treatments or you have heavier nosebleeds more frequently, make an appointment with your healthcare practitioner. If you experience uncommon symptoms, such as a sudden change in vision, difficulty chewing, or severe nosebleeds, you need prompt medical attention. In some cases, you may need to visit the ER.

Sinus Cancer Symptoms by Site

All sinus cancers share symptoms like a stuffy nose and feeling pressure, but other symptoms may vary based on tumor location. Most nasal and paranasal sinus cancers occur in the maxillary sinuses. They occur less frequently in the nasal cavity, the frontal sinuses, and the ethmoid sinuses.

Maxillary sinus cancer

Your maxilla is the bone that makes up your middle face and extends to your upper jaw. The maxillary sinuses are located in the cheekbones below the eye on each side of your nose. These are the largest sinus cavities. The most common type of maxillary sinus cancer is squamous cell carcinoma.

Persistent symptoms:

  • Pain or pressure in the cheekbone area
  • Pain or pressure in the upper teeth
  • Swelling in the roof of the mouth
  • Swelling around the cheeks or eyes

Nasal cavity cancer

A nasal tumor usually occurs in only one of the main nasal passageways within the nose. One type of nasal cavity tumor is an inverted papilloma. These start out as noncancerous (benign) tumors that may form in the back of the nasal cavity (sphenoid bone) or extend into the paranasal sinuses. In about 5% to 12% of cases, inverted papillomas can become cancerous (malignant).

Persistent symptoms:

  • Persistent nasal congestion
  • Runny nose or post-nasal drip
  • Headache
  • Lost sense of smell
  • Facial pain or pressure
  • A sore that doesn’t heal inside your nasal passage

Frontal sinus cancer

These sinuses are located in your forehead (frontal bone) above the eyes. Frontal sinus cancer is a very rare type of cancer. Less than 0.3% of nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancers involve the frontal sinuses.

Persistent symptoms:

  • Pain or pressure in the forehead
  • Swelling of the forehead

Ethmoid sinus cancer 

The ethmoid is a complex bone with numerous small air cells or sinuses. It is one of the structures that helps separate the nasal cavity and the brain. 

Persistent symptoms:

  • Pain or pressure between or behind the eyes
  • Decreased sense of smell

Types of Sinus Cancer

As we’ve detailed, sinus cancer can occur in multiple locations. There are also several distinct types of sinus cancer. Each type has its own set of treatment challenges and expected outcomes. 

If your healthcare practitioner suspects you have sinus cancer, you may need a biopsy to determine the type of cancer. This helps your medical team individualize your treatments. A universal approach doesn't work for all cancer types.

1. Squamous cell carcinoma: Originating from squamous epithelial cells, this is the predominant cancer type in the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses, accounting for just over half of such cases.

2. Glandular cancer: Cancers like adenocarcinomas, adenoid cystic carcinomas, and mucoepidermoid cancers can develop from minor salivary gland cells. These are the second most common cancers in the nose and nearby areas.

3. Undifferentiated carcinoma: This is a severe type of cancer with abnormal cells. It's hard to figure out where these cells come from.

Benign Sinus Tumors and Symptoms

Non-cancerous sinus conditions can also cause these symptoms. Benign tumors of the sinuses are noncancerous growths that don't spread to other parts of the body. But even though they are not cancerous, they can still cause symptoms and complications due to their size and location.

1. Osteoma: This is the most common non-cancerous (benign) tumor of the paranasal sinuses. It is a bone-forming tumor commonly arising in the frontal and ethmoid sinuses. Most osteomas are slow-growing and asymptomatic, but larger ones can cause pain, headache, or obstruction.

2. Fibro-osseous lesions: These are a group of benign growths that affect the jaw and facial bones. 

3. Papillomas: These are wart-like growths that may be caused by viruses. Some papillomas can convert into cancerous tumors. 

4. Angiofibroma: This highly vascular tumor occurs almost exclusively in teenage boys, but can occasionally be seen in adult men, causing obstructions and nosebleeds.

5. Hemangioma: This tumor is a benign cluster of blood vessels that can grow in the nasal cavity and the sinuses, especially the maxillary sinus and nasal passages, causing nasal obstruction and bleeding.

How Are Paranasal and Sinus Cancer Diagnosed? 

Please note: The Ezra Scan is a screening MRI tool and is not used to diagnose disease or evaluate a treatment’s effectiveness.

Early diagnosis of sinus cancer makes it easier to treat successfully. Sinus cancer, like other cancers, is diagnosed through a combination of clinical evaluation and specialized tests. Here are the tests most commonly used to diagnose sinus cancer.

Endoscopy: A thin, flexible tube with a lighted camera on its end (nasal endoscope) is inserted into each nostril to visually inspect the sinuses and nasal passages.

Imaging studies: The following tests help determine the location and extent of the tumor and may be able to see if it has spread.

  • A computed tomography (CT scan) uses X-rays to create detailed images of the sinuses and surrounding structures.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses magnetic fields and radio waves to create detailed images of thin bones and soft tissues.
  • A positron emission tomography (PET scan) uses radioactive tracers and imaging equipment to find out if cancer has spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the body.

Biopsy: If an abnormal area is found, a tissue biopsy might be performed. This means a small tissue sample is removed and examined under a microscope.

Is Cancer of the Sinus Curable?

The words “cure” and “cancer-free” are used a lot in the media. During and after your treatment, your medical provider will conduct imaging tests to measure the effectiveness of treatment and ensure the cancer hasn’t spread. If your cancer treatment is successful, you may eventually hear the word “remission.” 

Cancer remission occurs when treatment has reduced or eliminated sinus cancer symptoms and signs. Surgery alone will cure some types, but others may need a combination of treatments. The good news is that sinus cancer is treatable, especially when detected early.

When sinus cancer is located in only one area, the five-year survival rate is 84%. That means that out of every 100 people diagnosed with this type of cancer, 84 are still living five years later. However, if the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes, the survival rate decreases. If it has spread to distant sites, the survival rate drops even further, to 35%.

How Is Sinus Cancer Treated?

The treatment options for sinus cancer depend on the cancer stage, the type of cancer, and your overall health. After surgery for sinus cancer, your medical provider may suggest radiation, chemotherapy, or a combination of both. Oncologists emphasize the importance of early detection and individualized treatment to give you the best chance at a successful recovery.

There are a few factors that can influence successful treatment:

  • The earlier you're diagnosed, the more likely that treatment will be successful.
  • Some types of sinus cancer are more aggressive than others and may be more difficult to cure.
  • Patients who are generally healthy can handle treatment better and have a higher chance of survival.

Improve Outcomes With Early Detection

Ezra does not offer a stand-alone sinus MRI scan. However, the Ezra Full Body Scan screens up to 13 important body parts, including the head and sinuses. When it comes to cancer and health management, early detection is the most powerful advantage. With the convenience of online signup, Ezra makes taking control of your health accessible and straightforward.

Investigate Any Sinus Cancer Symptoms and Take Charge of Your Health

Sinus cancer symptoms: people drinking wine

Sinus tumors are a type of head and neck cancer. As with most cancer types, there are unavoidable risk factors like genetics and gender. While you can’t change those, you can make better lifestyle choices, such as avoiding specific industrial dust and chemicals or refraining from smoking.

When sinus issues become more than mere annoyances– If at-home treatments don't resolve the problem within a few days, you should contact your healthcare provider. These may be early sinus cancer symptoms or other conditions.

The Ezra Full Body MRI scan is a proactive screening tool that looks at multiple organs and body parts at the same time. Our goal is to empower health-conscious individuals in detecting potential health concerns early on before symptoms arise. Are you ready to take a more proactive approach to your health?