Salivary Gland Cancer

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Salivary gland cancer is a rare disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the salivary glands. 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 three 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).

Salivary Gland Cancer Causes

 Being exposed to certain types of radiation may increase the risk of salivary cancer.


Although the cause of most salivary gland cancers is not known, risk factors include the following:

  • Older age
  • Treatment with radiation therapy to the head and neck
  • Being exposed to certain substances at work


Check with your doctor if you have any of the following problems:

  • A lump (usually painless) in the area of the ear, cheek, jaw, lip, or inside the mouth
  • Fluid draining from the ear
  • Trouble swallowing or opening the mouth widely
  • Numbness or weakness in the face
  • Pain in the face that does not go away

Salivary Gland Cancer Diagnosis

The following procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)
  • CT scan (CAT scan)
  • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan)
  • Endoscopy
  • Biopsy
  • Fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy
  • Incisional biopsy
  • Surgery 


Treatments include the following:

  • Head and neck surgeon
  • Radiation oncologist
  • Dentist
  • Speech therapist
  • Dietitian
  • Psychologist
  • Rehabilitation specialist
  • Plastic surgeon

Three types of standard treatment are used:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
    • Fast neutron radiation therapy
    • Photon-beam radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiosensitizers


Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.