Nasal or nose cancer typically refers to tumors that start in the paranasal sinus or nasal cavities. It is relatively rare and can go undetected until the tumor is large enough to block the airway or spread beyond the nose.

When a tumor or cancer develops in the nose, a person will often develop symptoms that can include congestion, postnasal drip, and pain around the eyes.

This article reviews nose cancer symptoms, diagnosis, staging, and more.

To discover more evidence-based information and resources for cancer, visit our dedicated hub.

A person with an altered sense of smell, one of the symptoms of nose cancer.Share on Pinterest
Dima Berlin/Getty Images

Nasal cancer can cause several symptoms that resemble those of different, benign conditions.

In fact, diagnosis often occurs due to a person investigating the cause of their symptoms, thinking it may be a common cold or infection.

Some common symptoms can include:

Most of these symptoms are likely the result of something less serious, as nose cancer is rare.

Learn more

Learn more about nose cancer and related conditions.

Cancer screening is the process of detecting cancer before any symptoms start. Doctors perform this to catch cancers early, when they are easier to treat.

However, there is no simple screening process for nose cancer. The American Cancer Association (ACA) does not currently recommend routine nasal cancer screening.

Some places, such as the Yale Cancer Center, regularly conduct head and neck cancer screenings. However, there is no evidence that screening for head and neck cancers save lives.

Is it possible to detect nose cancer early?

Early detection is possible, but it does not occur often.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) notes a few main reasons for the delay in diagnosis:

  • The symptoms are nonspecific and far more likely due to common illnesses or conditions.
  • Symptoms do not typically start until the cancer has grown in size or potentially spread to other areas in the body.
  • Nose cancer is relatively rare.

Diagnosis typically starts when a person consults a doctor to investigate the cause of their nasal symptoms.

If a doctor suspects nasal cancer, they will likely refer the person to an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist, who may order a few tests.

They will perform a physical examination and review the person’s medical history.

Following the exam, a specialist may order imaging scans that may include:

They may refer the person to another specialist who may order a biopsy. This involves taking a small sample of tissue from the tumor.

There are a few different ways to stage cancer. The American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) TNM system is the most prevalent.

This system assesses three features of cancer, including:

  • Tumor (T): The size of the tumor, how far it has spread, and its growth rate.
  • Lymph nodes (N): Whether cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, and how many it affects.
  • Metastasized (M): Whether cancer has spread to other organs or distant areas of the body.

Doctors may group the cancer into stages 0–IV. The TNM system then further describes the tumor, lymph nodes, and metastasized status in groups 1–4.

In general, nasal cancer stages look like this:

  • Stage 0: The tumor is small. It has not affected the lymph nodes, nor has metastasis occurred.
  • Stage I: The tumor has grown larger, but there is still no lymph node involvement and no metastasis.
  • Stage II: The tumor has grown in size and now affects more areas of the nasal passages. There is no lymph node involvement or metastasis.
  • Stage III: The tumor has grown outside the nasal area. It may or may not affect the lymph nodes, and no metastasis has occurred.
  • Stage IV: The cancer is advanced. There may be the presence of metastasis, advanced local spread, or significant lymph node involvement. The stage subdivides into IV A, B, or C, depending on the TNM staging.

There are several potential causes and risk factors associated with nasal cancers. These include:

  • tobacco use
  • exposure to certain chemicals and substances, including wood dust, leather dust, and smoke
  • inherited or acquired gene mutations
  • high risk human papillomavirus (HPV)

Treatments can vary for nasal cancer. Factors that can affect a person’s treatment plan can include:

  • age
  • tumor size
  • which surrounding structures the tumor affects
  • whether it has spread to other areas of the body
  • overall health

The main types of treatment for nasal cancer include:

A doctor may also recommend participation in a clinical trial. Clinical trials test new forms of treatment to test their effectiveness and safety.

Treatments can cause side effects. A doctor may recommend additional therapies to help alleviate symptoms associated with treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation.

Doctors often classify the outlook for cancers in 5-year relative survival rates. This compares the likelihood of a person with cancer surviving for 5 years after diagnosis to the general population.

The 5-year survival rate for nasal cancer is as follows:

  • local, or only present in the affected organ — 85%
  • regional, or present beyond the original organ into the lymph nodes — 52%
  • distant, or spread to other organs — 42%
  • all staged combined — 58%

Survival rates give a person an idea of their overall outlook and potential for survival. It does not fully take into account an individual’s overall health and response to treatment.

A person should contact a doctor if they experience unexplained nasal congestion, postnasal drip, or headaches, and these symptoms do not go away over time.

A person should also seek medical attention if they experience:

Though the cause may be a benign condition, a doctor may be able to help rule out cancer.

Most cases of nasal cancer occur in people over 55 years old. It is also more likely to occur in white people and males.

The following sections provide answers to some common questions about nasal cancer.

How common is cancer in the nose?

Nose cancer is not common. It accounts for only about 3–5% of all head and neck cancers in the United States. Head and neck cancers account for only a fraction of all cancer types.

How do you know if you have skin cancer on your nose?

Experts consider cancer that develops on the skin of the nose as skin cancer, as it starts in the skin cells.

Though symptoms can vary, some skin cancer on the nose may appear as:

  • a bruise or cut that does not heal
  • scar-like area
  • shiny bump or nodule
  • irritated skin or red patch

Learn more about the symptoms of skin cancer.

Nasal cancer starts in the nasal cavities or paranasal sinuses. As the tumor grows, a person may develop nonspecific symptoms resembling many other benign conditions.

Symptoms include nasal congestion and stuffiness that does not improve, nosebleeds, changes in the sense of smell, headaches, and more.

Treatment typically involves radiation, chemotherapy, surgery, or a combination of these therapies. A person’s outlook depends on the size of the tumor, their overall health, age, and response to treatment.