Ear cancer is a disease that causes abnormal cell growth in the ear. The symptoms can vary depending on where the tumor is and how far it spreads. It might cause ear pain, blood, and hearing problems.

Ear cancer is rare and difficult to treat. Most types of ear cancer will affect hearing, which may lead to a complete loss of hearing.

This article discusses what ear cancer is and how it feels.

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Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is a form of skin cancer that can develop on the pinna or outer ear, as well as other areas of the body. According to an older article, it is the most common form of cancer in white people.

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is a type of skin cancer that can affect the ears temporal bone and external auditory canal. It affects 1–6 people per million each year.

Ear cancer that also affects the nose, nasal cavity, and middle ear is a rare form of cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, it occurs in fewer than 1 out of 100,000 people. The rate of these cancers has dropped by 0.6% each year since the 1990s.

SCC frequently begins on the skin of the outer ear or in the ear canal. It can also affect other parts of the ear, such as:

  • the eardrum
  • hearing bones
  • the mastoid bone
  • the facial movement nerve
  • the inner ear

BCC on the ear tends to be more aggressive than on other areas of the body, for example, the neck and head.

The symptoms of ear cancer vary depending on its location:

Ear canal

  • pain
  • seepage from the ear
  • difficulty hearing
  • a noticeable lump or tumor in the ear canal
  • weakness on the side of the face nearest to the affected ear

Middle ear

  • blood in the ear
  • discharge
  • ear pain
  • loss of hearing
  • inability to move the face around the affected ear

Inner ear

Doctors use stages to describe the severity of cancers. This information will guide treatment decisions. Doctors will assess the stage of cancer by:

  • the size of the tumor – whether the tumor has grown beyond the middle ear, entered the bone, or makes the face numb
  • the presence or absence of cancer cells in the lymph nodes
  • the spread of cancer to other parts of the body, such as the salivary gland, jaw, or base of the skull

Doctors who specialize in conditions affecting the ear, nose, and throat are ENT doctors or otolaryngologists. Some signs that it may be time to seek medical treatment from a doctor include:

  • frequent or lasting ear infections
  • loss of hearing
  • dizziness
  • sores or bumps on the outer ear that persist

A doctor will take a medical history, conduct a physical exam, and may order blood tests.

Other possible tests include MRI or CT scans, and biopsies. Biopsies involve taking a tissue sample to check for signs of cancer. But biopsies of the inner ear are rare.

Seeing a doctor at the first signs of concern can improve the chances of successful treatment.

Learn about an MRI of the head here.

Treatment options for ear cancer usually include surgery and radiation or chemotherapy.

Doctors will aim to remove the tumor and the area around it during ear cancer surgery. The parts of the ear that require removal will depend on the tumor’s location and spread.

Areas that may require removal include:

  • the ear canal and temporal bone
  • the middle ear, which sends vibrations to the inner ear
  • the inner ear, which transforms vibrations into nerve signals for the brain and supports balance

In rare cases, doctors may need to remove other body parts, such as:

  • facial nerves
  • lymph nodes in the neck
  • salivary glands near the affected ear

Doctors may use radiation on its own or in combination with surgery or chemotherapy to treat ear cancer.

Ear cancers are the result of abnormal cell growth. However, experts remain unclear about what triggers the onset of this abnormal cell growth.

Some factors, such as ear infections, can increase the chance of developing ear cancer. People who have experienced regular ear infections for 10 years or more have a greater chance of developing middle ear cancer.

According to an older article, males may have a slightly higher risk of developing ear cancer than females.

UV exposure can also contribute to the likelihood of a person developing skin cancer of the ear.

Ear cancer is very rare. Common symptoms of ear cancer include pain, blood, or hearing problems. Doctors may use a combination of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy to treat ear cancer.

The early detection and treatment of ear cancer increase the survival rate.

People with a history of chronic ear disease and infections might be at a greater risk of developing ear cancer.