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Cancer of the Ear
The ear is the organ of hearing and maintaining equilibrium, located above the neck and below the temporal bone of the skull. Being exposed to the sun, especially in males, the skin of the outer ear is prone to develop basal skin carcinoma (a type of skin cancer). The temporal bone may also be affected by this type of skin cancer. Malignant melanoma is another malignancy that can affect the skin of the outer ear.
A more common type of ear cancer is the squamous cell carcinoma which affects deeper parts of the ear, particularly the ear canal. Glands in the ear may also be affected by adenoid cystic carcinoma. These malignancies can spread outside the ear such as to the parotid glands and lymph nodes of the neck.
Benign tumors may also develop in the ears such as polyps, cholesteatoma and glomus tumors. These are slow growing but may also produce symptoms and affect the well being of the individual.
The exact cause of ear cancer is unknown, although exposure to carcinogenic chemicals is a probability.
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Signs and Symptoms of Ear Cancer
Abnormal growth of cells on the skin of the outer ear usually appear as a persistent crusting on the upper edge of the ear. The tumor may be a scaly area that does not improve with the use of a moisturizer, or appear as a white bump, sometimes accompanied by oozing or draining. The lesions may be initially painless and slow growing but later these may ulcerate and bleed, accompanied by pain.
Tumors that grow in the outer to the inner ear canal usually start out with symptoms of middle ear infection such as chronic ear drainage. However, with ear cancer the ear drainage is usually tinged with blood. Towards the outer ear ulceration may be observed.
As the tumor grows inside the ear other structures are affected, such as the nerves, the surrounding bones, the vestibular apparatus, lymph nodes and the parotid gland. Ear cancer symptoms then include:
- Constant ringing in the ear
- Loss of hearing
- Ear pain
- Facial paralysis on the side of the affected ear – due to facial nerve involvement
- Enlargement of the parotid gland which is the salivary gland located below the ear
- Enlargement of the lymph nodes
- Jaw and temporal bone pain
The symptoms of slow growing tumors may be subtle and may resemble chronic ear infection or skin disease if it involves the other ear skin.
A patient with chronic symptoms of ear infection, discharge or lesion that does not go away with antibiotics should consult an ENT (ear, nose and throat) specialist. Diagnosis of ear malignancy is confirmed with a biopsy.
Treatment depends on the size and extent of tumor damage. These may include surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
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Cedars-Sinai, “Ear and Temporal Bone Cancer" accessed 2/18/11
Doncaster and Bassetlaw Hospitals, “Cancer of the Ear" accessed 2/18/11
Private Healthcare UK, “Cancer of the ear: Treatment, symptoms, advice and help" accessed 2/18/11