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
Symptoms and Causes
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 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
Diagnosis and Tests
How is salivary gland cancer diagnosed?
Your doctor diagnoses salivary gland cancer with a physical examination and a review of your medical and personal history. In some cases, doctors order additional diagnostic tests to confirm the presence of a tumor. These tests may include:
- CT scans using X-rays to provide images of masses within salivary glands
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, which use magnets and radio waves to create pictures of internal body structures
- Positron emission tomography (PET) scans using small amounts of radioactive materials to identify cancerous masses
- Fine-needle biopsy to collect a small tissue and fluid sample from a salivary gland tumor for further examination in a laboratory
When should I call my doctor?
If you have any of the symptoms of a salivary gland tumor listed above, especially if your symptoms persist for more than two weeks, contact your doctor for a diagnostic evaluation.
Management and Treatment
How is salivary gland cancer treated?
Surgery is the main treatment option for benign salivary gland tumors. After surgery, your recovery focuses on preventing infection and managing pain. Your doctor may prescribe drugs like antibiotics and pain medications to achieve these goals.
For malignant salivary gland cancers, doctors perform surgery to remove the tumor. After surgery, you will likely receive radiation therapy to the area affected by cancer and the draining lymph nodes. Radiation helps kill all cancer cells so cancer can’t return.
In some cases, doctors recommend chemotherapy if cancer has spread from the salivary glands to other tissues outside the head and neck.
What complications are associated with salivary gland tumors?
Left untreated, some 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 the mouth, numbness, weakness and facial pain. These symptoms may interfere with your ability to speak and swallow properly.
Can salivary gland cancer be prevented?
There is no way to prevent salivary gland cancer. You can reduce your risk of developing this disease by avoiding certain risk factors, like smoking and excessive alcohol consumption
Outlook / Prognosis
What is the prognosis (outlook) for people with salivary gland cancer?
Most people recover fully from salivary gland tumor treatment. The chance of recovery is higher if a tumor is benign or a cancer is diagnosed and treated early.