Understanding Rare But Serious Sinus Cancer

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Nosebleeds, nasal congestion, and watery eyes all can signal sinus cancer. But they can just as easily signal something entirely different. It’s one of the reasons this rare cancer typically isn’t found early. Sameep Kadakia, MD, a head and neck/facial and plastic reconstructive surgeon, provides the details.

What Are the Symptoms?

Symptoms usually appear on just one side of the face and include one or more of the following:

  • Nasal congestion that doesn’t get better
  • Bloody nose
  • Pain or pressure in one ear
  • Change in vision
  • Bulging in one eye
  • Hearing loss
  • Watery eyes
  • Pus draining from the nose
  • Decreased sense of smell
  • Pain or numbness on parts of the face
  • Loose or numb teeth
  • Headache
  • Blocked nasal passage
  • Changes in the appearance of the face

Why Isn’t It Caught Sooner?

“The sinus area has a lot of air spaces. Tumors can hide in those spaces and not cause symptoms until they get to be quite large,” Dr. Kadakia explains. “So by the time the patient seeks advice from their doctor, the cancer is often beyond the early stages.”

An endoscopic evaluation typically is done at your first appointment with an ear, nose, and throat specialist, says Dr. Kadakia. The endoscope is a small flexible tube with a camera and light. The tube is placed in your nose and throat, allowing your doctor to locate any possible tumor or abnormality. “If we find something suspicious, we might also do a CT scan and get a tissue sample to examine under a microscope,” Dr. Kadakia adds. Results will show whether or not cancer is present.

How Is Sinus Cancer Treated?

Treatment depends on how far the cancer has progressed, says Dr. Kadakia. “If it’s in an early stage, we can usually treat with surgery to remove the cancer and then reconstruction, if needed. When the cancer is very advanced, we may also need to do radiation and chemotherapy.” Reconstruction surgery, when necessary, is done to repair your nasal septum or other parts of your face that may have been misshapen when the cancer was removed.

Who’s At Risk?

The risk factors for sinus cancer are not clear, says Dr. Kadakia. “Unlike some of the other head and neck cancers, there’s not really a strong association with HPV or with smoking or alcohol. Researchers are discovering that certain chemicals and toxic fumes, if inhaled for a long period while working in a factory, for example, may be cancer-causing. But the cause is not clearly delineated at this point.”

What’s the Prognosis?

Recovery from sinus cancer depends on how quickly it is caught and treated. “Any cancer can reoccur,” says Dr. Kadakia. “When the cancer is advanced, it can be aggressive. If it is in the bone, the prognosis usually isn’t as good. But if caught and removed early, patients typically do well.” After treatment, it’s important to be followed closely so your doctor can watch for changes or a reoccurrence of the cancer.

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