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Salivary Gland Cancer

Salivary gland cancer facts

*Salivary gland cancer facts medically edited by

  • Salivary gland cancer is a type of head and neck cancer that involves abnormal (malignant) growth of salivary gland cells.
  • Factors that increase the risk of salivary gland cancer include older age, radiation therapy to the head and neck, or exposure to cancer-causing chemicals at work.
  • Symptoms and signs of salivary gland cancer include painless lump(s) in the area of the ear, cheek, jaw, lips, or mouth and/or fluid draining from the ear, trouble swallowing, difficulty opening the mouth, numbness or weakness to the face, and/or facial pain.
  • The following exams and tests are used to detect and diagnose salivary gland cancer: physical exam and history, MRI, CT scan, PET scan, ultrasound, endoscopy, and biopsy of tissue suspected to be cancerous.
  • The prognosis for salivary gland cancer is variable and depends on the size of the tumor, the type of cancer, the type of salivary gland tissue involved, and the patient's age and general health.
  • CT and MRI scans are usually done to determine if salivary gland cancer has spread to other tissues.
  • Salivary gland cancer cells can spread directly to adjacent tissues or spread to other organs by going through the lymphatic system or through the blood.
  • Salivary gland cancer has four stages: stage I being confined to the salivary glands and is 2 cm or smaller; stage II is larger than 2 cm but not larger than 4 cm; stage III has spread to a lymph node or to soft tissue around the affected gland; and stage IV has spread further.
  • Three types of standard treatment are used for salivary gland cancer -- surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy -- some patients may receive more than one type of treatment.
  • Staging affects choices of therapy; the higher the stage, the more likely the patient will require multiple and more aggressive therapies described above.

What is salivary gland cancer?

The salivary glands make saliva and release it into the mouth. Saliva has enzymes that help digest food and antibodies that help protect against infections of the mouth and throat. There are 3 pairs of major salivary glands:

  • Parotid glands: These are the largest salivary glands and are found in front of and just below each ear. Most major salivary gland tumors begin in this gland.
  • Sublingual glands: These glands are found under the tongue in the floor of the mouth.
  • Submandibular glands: These glands are found below the jawbone.

There are also hundreds of small (minor) salivary glands lining parts of the mouth, nose, and larynx that can be seen only with a microscope. Most small salivary gland tumors begin in the palate (roof of the mouth).

More than half of all salivary gland tumors are benign (not cancerous) and do not spread to other tissues.

Salivary gland cancer is a type of head and neck cancer.


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