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Ear cancer

What is ear cancer?

Ear cancer can manifest as either a malignant (cancerous) or a benign (non-cancerous) ear tumor that typically occurs after the age of 55. This condition is incredibly rare, affecting only a small number of individuals — around one or two per million people. During the initial stages, individuals may not experience noticeable symptoms.

Types of ear cancer

The most common is squamous cell carcinoma, originating in the outer ear like the ear canal or pinna. Basal cell carcinoma affects the skin of the outer ear and is often linked to excessive sun exposure. Similarly, melanoma is also associated with prolonged sun exposure and can develop in the outer ear skin or ear canal. Rarer types of cancer are adenoid cystic carcinoma, affecting salivary glands and potentially the middle ear or mastoid bone, and sarcomas, which form in the bones or soft tissues of the middle ear or temporal bone.

Benign tumor of ear

Non-cancerous tumors in the ear canal also known as benign tumor, can lead to blockage, resulting in hearing loss and accumulation of earwax. Some examples of these tumors include:

Sebaceous cysts: Small sacs filled with skin secretions that can form in the ear canal.

Benign bone tumors: Although rare, these tumors can weaken the bone and cause complications.

Keloids: Excessive growths of scar tissue that can occur due to injury or perforation of the ear.

It is important to note that while these tumors are non-cancerous, they can still cause symptoms and require medical attention to alleviate the symptomps.

Malignant tumor of ear

The most common malignant tumors of the ear are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. In the early stages, these types of tumors can be treated effectively with surgical removal or radiotherapy.

Another form of cancer is melanoma, which spreads more rapidly and can also appear in the external ear canal. In this case, surgical removal is necessary.

Then there is ceruminoma, the carcinoma of the cells that produce earwax. This type of tumor may destroy the ear canal. It is not related to earwax plugs and treatment consists of surgical removal of the tumor.

Symptoms of an ear tumor

Persistent ear pain, along with symptoms like bleeding, itching, and tingling sensations, can indicate the presence of carcinoma. Middle and inner ear cancer may present with the following symptoms:

Keep in mind that ear cancer is relatively uncommon, and most ear-related symptoms are unrelated to cancer. However, if you experience persistent ear pain, bleeding, hearing loss, a lump in or around the ear, or any concerning symptoms, it is best to consult a healthcare professional for a proper evaluation to determine the underlying cause and appropriate treatment. 

Outer ear tumor

Most tumors are of epithelial origin and primarily occur in the outer ear, specifically the pinna. These types of tumors account for around 70% of all cases, with carcinomas being the most prevalent, commonly found in the external auditory canal. The majority of these tumors, about 80%, are localized in the pinna. The remaining tumors are evenly divided between the external auditory canal and the middle ear.

Inner ear tumor

Inner ear tumors, also referred to as intracochlear tumors or vestibular schwannomas, are uncommon growths that form within the structures of the inner ear. The inner ear plays a crucial role in hearing and balance, and tumors occurring in this region can lead to a diverse range of symptoms and complications.

The most common type of inner ear tumor is known as a vestibular schwannoma, which originates from the Schwann cells enveloping the vestibular nerve responsible for transmitting balance signals from the inner ear to the brain. Although these tumors are generally benign (non-cancerous), they can still pose significant issues due to their size and location. Basal cell carcinoma can also affect the inner ear, although it is more commonly found in other areas of the body that are exposed to the sun.

The symptoms of inner ear tumors can vary depending on their size and the specific structures they affect.

Have your hearing tested

Regular hearing health checks can also help detect hearing loss early on and prevent it from getting worse over time. Visit the Amplifon clinic nearest to you for a thorough hearing evaluation and learn more about the best ways to protect your hearing.

What causes ear cancer?

While ear cancer is relatively rare, certain factors may increase the likelihood of its development. One significant factor is exposure to treatments or substances that can potentially damage the ear, even during early stages of life.

Other factors that can cause ear cancer include a history of chronic ear infections, genetic predisposition, and a weakened immune system. Chronic inflammation and persistent infections can cause cellular changes that may eventually lead to cancer.

Ear tumor diagnosis

Identifying an ear tumor can be quite challenging since its symptoms can often resemble those of other conditions, such as an ear infection. If you are experiencing any symptoms, it is best to closely monitor them and report them to a hearing specialist. To accurately diagnose this condition, most patients undergo examinations, such an ACT scan and an MRI, which provide detailed imaging of the ear and its surrounding structures. These diagnostic tests play a fundamental role in distinguishing an ear tumor from other potential causes, enabling healthcare professionals to make an accurate and timely diagnosis.

How to treat ear cancer

The treatment options for ear cancer depend on the specific location of the tumor within the ear. Different approaches are used to address tumors in the inner ear, middle ear, and external ear.

Inner ear and middle ear tumors can be treated through various approaches. Surgery is often performed to remove the tumor, considering factors such as its size, location, and stage. Chemotherapy may be used alone or in combination with surgery or radiation therapy, particularly for tumors that have spread or are not suitable for surgical removal alone. 

External ear tumors can be treated through various methods. Mohs micrographic surgery is a specialised technique that removes skin cancers layer by layer while preserving healthy tissue. Lymph node surgery may be necessary if the tumor has spread to nearby lymph nodes to prevent further cancer spread. Otoplasty, a reconstructive ear surgery, improves the appearance and function of the external ear. 

Often used in conjunction with surgery or chemotherapy, radiotherapy is a common choice to treat most types of ear tumors, particularly when surgery is not possible or as an additional treatment to eliminate remaining cancer cells and reduce the risk of recurrence.

The selection of the appropriate treatment approach depends on factors such as the type, size, stage, and location of the tumor, as well as the individual's overall health and preferences.

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