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Salivary Glands Cancer

Baptist Cancer Center provides information about salivary glands cancer, including the various types, symptoms, causes, risk factors and treatment options.

Salivary Gland Cancer Explained

Salivary gland cancer is a rare form of cancer that grows in the salivary glands inside or near your mouth. Most tumors in the salivary glands are benign, and malignancies represent less than 5% of all head and neck cancers.

Salivary gland cancer is often discovered during a physical exam but can also be found through imaging, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computerized tomography (CT or CAT) scans or positron emission tomography (PET) scans.

Salivary Gland Cancer Treatment Options

Treatment for salivary gland cancer may vary based on the type of salivary gland cancer, its stage or its location. Surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy or a combination of these treatments may be recommended. Your health care team may consist of an otolaryngologist (also known as an ear, nose and throat doctor or ENT), radiation oncologist, medical oncologist, plastic surgeon, oral and maxillofacial surgeon and a neurologist.

Depending on the symptoms you experience or the type of treatment planned, you may be referred to a dietitian, speech therapist or dental oncologist. If you are having speech or swallowing issues, a speech therapist or speech-language pathologist will be an important part of your health care team. For nutrition and diet changes, swallowing difficulties or issues with the consistency of food, a dietitian is recommended. Dental evaluations are also important with head and neck cancers, especially if you receive radiation therapy to the head or neck area.

The Different Types of Salivary Gland Cancer

Three main types of salivary glands (also called major salivary glands) are the parotid gland, submandibular gland or sublingual gland. The parotid gland is where most salivary gland cancers start. Other salivary glands (called minor salivary glands) are very small and are found throughout the head and neck area. If a tumor develops in a minor salivary gland, which is rare, it is typically benign, or non-cancerous.

There are several salivary glands in the human body, and a cancer that starts in any of them may be called by different names. The American Cancer Society recommends asking your doctor to write down the exact kind of cancer you have to avoid confusion.

The type of salivary gland cancer is often determined by its appearance, the cell type it most looks like and the grade of the cancer. A few of the types of salivary gland cancers based on cell type include:

  • Mucoepidermoid carcinoma
  • Adenoid cystic carcinoma
  • Acinic cell carcinoma
  • Polymorphous adenocarcinoma
  • Adenocarcinoma, NOS (not otherwise specified)
  • Secretory carcinoma

Following are some of the ways providers may describe grading:

  • Grade 1 (also called low grade or well differentiated) – Cancer cells look very much like normal salivary gland cells, grow slowly and have a good outcome.
  • Grade 2 (also called intermediate grade or moderately differentiated) – Cancer cells appear somewhat different from normal cells.
  • Grade 3 (also called high grade or poorly differentiated) – Cancer cells appear very different from normal cells in the salivary glands.

Other types of cancers, such as non-Hodgkin lymphoma, sarcoma, squamous cell skin cancer or melanoma may spread (or metastasize) to the salivary glands. Treatment for these cancers will be based on the original cancer type.

Learn the Symptoms, Stages and Causes

Recognizing the signs of gastric and stomach cancer allows for timely intervention, potentially increasing the chances of successful treatment and improving your quality of life.

What are the causes and risk factors of salivary gland cancer?

The signs and symptoms of salivary gland cancer will vary greatly by the gland involved. Some symptoms are possible even if there is a benign or non-cancerous tumor. These signs and symptoms include:

  • Nerve pain, numbness or weakness in the head or neck area
  • Consistent or frequent pain in the head or neck area
  • Changes in the size or shape of your face or neck
  • Swelling or a lump in your mouth, cheek, jaw or neck
  • Muscle weakness on one side of the face
  • Trouble opening your mouth widely
  • Difficulty swallowing

What are the causes and risk factors of salivary gland cancer?

Causes and risk factors of salivary gland cancer remain mostly unknown; however, the following may increase your risk:

  • A family history of salivary gland cancer
  • Previous head or neck radiation therapy
  • Smoking tobacco
  • Workplace exposure to radioactive substances, certain metals or minerals, asbestos, etc.
  • Your age
  • Previous viral infections, such as HPV, HIV or Epstein-Barr virus

If you are using tobacco products, we strongly recommend quitting. Smoking not only increases your risk for developing cancer, it can have a negative effect on cancer treatments, such as impeding the effectiveness of radiation therapy and chemotherapy, increasing the side effects of treatments, slowing wound healing, increasing the risk of infection, requiring longer hospital stays and more. Baptist Cancer Center has a smoking cessation program and smoking cessation support group available through our THRIVE Survivorship Program.

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