Salivary gland cancer affects the salivary glands in or near the mouth. Salivary gland tumors may be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous).
The salivary glands produce and release saliva into the mouth. Saliva contains enzymes that aid in digestion and antibodies that protect against infections of the mouth and throat.
Salivary glands may occur in the three major salivary glands:
- Parotid glands (inside the cheek)
- Submandibular glands (in the floor of the mouth)
- Sublingual glands (below the tongue)
Salivary gland cancer may also occur within the microscopic minor salivary glands which are located within the roof or floor of the mouth, the lining of the tongue and lips, and inside the cheeks, nose, sinuses and voice box.
Most individuals fully recover from salivary gland cancer. As with other forms of cancer, chances of recovery are higher if the tumor is benign or if the cancer is diagnosed and treated early.
Signs of salivary gland cancer include:
- Weakness or numbness in the face, neck, jaw or mouth
- Persistent pain in the neck, jaw, mouth or face
- Difficulty swallowing
- Fluid draining from the ear
- Trouble opening the mouth fully or moving your facial muscles
- Bleeding from the mouth
Left untreated, salivary gland tumors may cause rapid enlargement of a pre-existing mass in or around the mouth, weakness, numbness and facial pain. These symptoms may cause difficulty when speaking and swallowing.
Individuals are at increased risk of developing salivary gland cancer if they:
- Are 55 years of age or older
- Smoke or frequently consume alcohol
- Have been exposed to radioactive substances
- Have had radiation therapy to the head or neck
- Work in plumbing, asbestos mining, leather work or rubber products manufacturing
Though there is no way to prevent salivary gland cancer, individuals may decrease their risk by avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.
When to Consult a Doctor
Individuals experiencing symptoms of salivary gland cancer, especially if symptoms last for more than two weeks, should schedule an appointment with their physician.
Diagnosing Salivary Gland Cancer
During an initial visit, the physician will perform a physical examination and review the patient’s medical and personal history. Additional diagnostic tests may be necessary to confirm the presence of a tumor. The following tests may be ordered:
- CT scans use x-rays to provide images of masses within the salivary glands
- MRI scans use magnets and radio waves to create images of internal body structures
- PET scans use radioactive materials to identify cancerous masses
- Endoscopy may be performed to examine the organs and tissues inside the body and check for abnormalities
- Fine-needle biopsy will be performed to collect a small tissue and fluid sample for examination in a lab
Most cases of salivary gland cancer are treated with surgery, which involves removing the tumor. After surgery, patients may need radiation therapy to kill all cancer cells and reduce the chance of the cancer returning. Patients with cancer that has spread to other tissues outside the head and neck may need chemotherapy.
The following factors affect a patient’s chances of recovery:
- Stage of the cancer
- Type of salivary gland with cancerous cells
- Type of cancer cells
- Patient age and general health