Salivary gland cancer forms in your salivary glands, the organs in your mouth and throat that produce saliva or “spit.” Common symptoms include a painless lump in your mouth or jaw. Your prognosis depends on various factors, including the salivary gland where the cancer starts and whether the cancer’s spread beyond your salivary glands.
“Salivary gland cancer” is a term used to describe malignant tumors that affect your salivary glands. Your salivary glands are located in your mouth and throat. They produce saliva — or spit — that helps your digestive system begin breaking down food.
Salivary gland tumors may be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Both types may affect any of your salivary glands.
Salivary cancer is rare. Only 1% of tumors affecting the head and neck are salivary cancer. The most common types of salivary gland cancer are mucoepidermoid carcinoma and adenoid cystic carcinoma. Together, they make up half of all malignant salivary gland tumors.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
Anyone can develop salivary gland cancer, but men and people assigned male at birth are more likely to have malignant salivary gland tumors. You’re also more likely to develop cancer in a salivary gland if you:
Studies have shown that some rare types of salivary gland cancer may occur more commonly in people with certain viral infections, like Epstein-Barr virus and human papillomavirus (HPV). Still, these infections don’t cause salivary gland cancer. More research is needed to understand the connection.
The exact cause of most salivary gland cancers is unknown. Salivary gland tumors can occur in any salivary gland located in or near your mouth. Most commonly, tumors occur in the three major salivary glands. These include your:
Most salivary gland tumors — both malignant and benign — start in your parotid glands.
Salivary gland cancer also occurs within the microscopic minor salivary glands. These glands are within the roof or floor of your mouth, the lining of your tongue and lips, and the inside of your cheeks, sinuses, nose and voice box. Tumors rarely form in minor salivary glands, but most that do are malignant.
Left untreated, pieces of these tumors can break away and spread to other parts of your body through your bloodstream or lymphatic system (metastasize). Cancer that’s metastasized is more challenging to treat than cancer that stays in your salivary gland. Salivary gland cancers can metastasize to your lungs, bone and liver.
A small number of people with salivary gland cancer don’t have symptoms. In most cases, salivary gland cancer causes a painless lump on a salivary gland.
If you have a malignant salivary gland tumor, you’re more likely to experience other symptoms, including:
Your healthcare provider diagnoses salivary gland cancer with a physical examination and a review of your medical and personal history. They’ll check for lumps in your salivary glands and see how your facial nerves respond to stimulation. They’ll ask about your symptoms and previous cancer diagnoses.
Your provider may order additional tests to confirm the presence of a tumor or cancer cells. These tests may include:
A biopsy is the only way to confirm that a salivary gland tumor is cancerous.
Your healthcare provider will stage your cancer as part of your diagnosis. Cancer staging provides information about your tumor that can help guide treatment.
The staging system used for tumors that form in your parotid glands, submandibular glands and sublingual glands follows the TLM system:
A different system is used to stage cancers that form in minor salivary glands.
Understanding your cancer stage is important to understanding both your treatment options and likely outcomes. Ask your provider to explain your cancer stage and what this means for your diagnosis.
Surgery is usually the best treatment option for tumors that can be safely removed. If a tumor is growing fast or if it’s spread to other parts of your body, your healthcare provider may recommend additional treatments.
Your healthcare provider may recommend that you participate in a clinical trial. A clinical trial is research that studies the safety and effectiveness of new treatments. These treatments include:
Depending on your cancer, you may receive a combination of treatments to remove the cancer and prevent it from growing back (recurring).
Benign salivary gland tumors may become malignant over time. The symptoms of salivary gland cancers include rapid enlargement of a pre-existing mass in or around your mouth, numbness, weakness and facial pain. These symptoms may interfere with your ability to speak and swallow properly.
There’s no way to prevent salivary gland cancer. You can reduce your overall cancer risk by avoiding certain risk factors, like smoking and drinking too much alcohol.
Most people recover fully from salivary gland tumor treatment if the cancer is diagnosed and treated early. Your prognosis will depend on factors like:
Cancer survival rates reflect research that tracks how many people with a particular cancer diagnosis are alive over a period of time, usually five years. With salivary gland cancer, survival rates depend on the type of cancer. For example, the survival rate for mucoepidermoid carcinoma ranges from 75% to 90% at five years. The location of the tumor matters, too. If it’s only in your salivary gland, the survival rate is 94%. The survival rate is lower if the cancer’s spread.
It’s important to keep in mind that this data doesn’t consider factors unique to you — like your health, your response to treatment, etc.
Ask your healthcare provider about your likely outcomes based on your unique situation.
If you have any symptoms of a salivary gland tumor, especially if your symptoms last for more than two weeks, make an appointment with a healthcare provider.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Schedule a visit with a healthcare provider if you notice a lump in your mouth or throat that doesn’t disappear within a few weeks. Lumps don’t always mean cancer. For instance, the lump may be a cyst or a benign salivary gland tumor. Only your provider can know for sure. Even if your tumor is malignant, you have a better chance of a positive prognosis if you get diagnosed and treated early.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/13/2022.
Learn more about our editorial process.