What is salivary gland cancer?

Salivary gland cancer is a term used to describe malignant tumors affecting salivary glands in or near the mouth. Salivary gland tumors may be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous), each occurring with equal frequency.

Salivary gland cancer may affect any of the salivary glands. Your prognosis (outlook) depends on the type of salivary gland cancer you have and the stage of the disease (how advanced the disease is).

Who is likely to have salivary gland cancer?

Anyone can develop salivary gland cancer, but men are more likely to have salivary gland tumors. You are also more likely to develop cancer in a salivary gland if you:

  • Are age 55 or older
  • Smoke or use alcohol frequently
  • Have radiation therapy to your head or neck or are exposed to radioactive substances
  • Work in certain occupations, including plumbing, rubber products manufacturing, asbestos mining and leatherwork

What causes salivary gland cancer?

The exact cause of most salivary gland cancers is unknown. Salivary gland tumors can occur in any salivary gland located in or near the mouth. Most commonly, tumors occur in the three major salivary glands. These include the:

  • Parotid glands (inside each cheek)
  • Submandibular glands (in the floor of the mouth)
  • Sublingual glands (below the tongue)

Salivary gland anatomy

Salivary gland cancer also occurs within the microscopic minor salivary glands. These glands are within the roof or floor of the mouth, the lining of the tongue and lips, and inside the cheeks, sinuses, nose and voice box. Salivary gland tumors may be benign or malignant (cancer). Benign tumors generally grow slowly and are not likely to spread to other tissues. About 50 percent of all salivary gland tumors are noncancerous. However, some salivary gland tumors are malignant and may spread to other areas of the body.

What are the symptoms of salivary gland cancer?

A small number of people with salivary gland cancer have no symptoms. In most cases, salivary gland cancer causes a painless lump on a salivary gland.

If a salivary gland tumor is malignant, you are more likely to experience other symptoms, including:

  • Weakness or numbness in the face, neck, jaw or mouth
  • Persistent pain in the face, neck, jaw or mouth
  • Difficulty opening your mouth fully or moving your facial muscles
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Bleeding from the mouth

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