Treatment for salivary gland cancer depends on the type, size and stage of salivary gland cancer you have, as well as your overall health and your preferences. Salivary gland cancer treatment usually involves surgery, with or without radiation therapy.
Surgery for salivary gland cancer may include:
- Removing a portion of the affected salivary gland. If your cancer is small and located in an easy-to-access spot, your surgeon may remove the tumor and a small portion of healthy tissue that surrounds it.
- Removing the entire salivary gland. If you have a larger tumor, your doctor may recommend removing the entire salivary gland. If your cancer extends into nearby structures — such as the facial nerves, the ducts that connect your salivary glands, facial bones and skin — these also may be removed.
- Removing lymph nodes in your neck. If there's evidence that cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in your neck, your surgeon may remove most of the lymph nodes in your neck (neck dissection).
- Reconstructive surgery. If bone, skin or nerves are removed during your surgery, these may need to be repaired or replaced with reconstructive surgery. During reconstructive surgery, a plastic surgeon works to make repairs that improve your ability to chew, swallow, speak or breathe after surgery. You may need grafts of skin, tissue or nerves from other parts of your body to rebuild areas in your mouth, throat or jaw.
Salivary gland surgery can be difficult because several important nerves are located in and around the glands. For example, a nerve in the face that controls facial movement runs through the parotid gland.
Removing tumors that involve important nerves may require damaging the nerves, causing partial paralysis of your face (facial droop). Surgeons take care to preserve these nerves whenever possible. In some cases, severed nerves can be repaired with nerves taken from other areas of your body.
Radiation therapy uses high-powered energy beams, such as X-rays and protons, to kill cancer cells. During radiation therapy, you lie on a table while a machine moves around you, directing high-powered beams at specific points on your body.
A newer type of radiation therapy that uses particles called neutrons may be more effective in treating certain salivary gland cancers. More study is needed to understand the benefits and risks of this treatment. Neutron radiation therapy isn't widely available in the United States.
Radiation therapy can be used after surgery to kill any cancer cells that might remain. If surgery isn't possible because a tumor is very large or is located in a place that makes removal too risky, your doctor may recommend radiation alone or in combination with chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy is a drug treatment that uses chemicals to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy isn't currently used as a standard treatment for salivary gland cancer, but researchers are studying its use.
Chemotherapy may be an option for people with advanced salivary gland cancer. It's sometimes used in combination with radiation therapy.
Supportive (palliative) care
Palliative care is specialized medical care that focuses on providing relief from pain and other symptoms of a serious illness. Palliative care specialists work with you, your family and your other doctors to provide an extra layer of support that complements your ongoing care. Palliative care can be used while undergoing other aggressive treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
When palliative care is used along with all of the other appropriate treatments, people with cancer may feel better and live longer.
Palliative care is provided by a team of doctors, nurses and other specially trained professionals. Palliative care teams aim to improve the quality of life for people with cancer and their families. This form of care is offered alongside curative or other treatments you may be receiving.
No complementary or alternative medicine treatments can cure salivary gland cancer. But complementary and alternative medicine treatments may help you cope with salivary gland cancer and the side effects of cancer treatment.
Complementary treatments for fatigue
Many people undergoing radiation therapy for cancer experience fatigue. Your doctor can treat underlying causes of fatigue, but the feeling of being utterly worn out may persist despite treatments.
Complementary therapies can help you cope with fatigue. Ask your doctor about trying:
- Exercise. Try gentle exercise for 30 minutes on most days of the week. Moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, during and after cancer treatment reduces fatigue. Talk to your doctor before you begin exercising, to make sure it's safe for you.
- Massage therapy. During a massage, a massage therapist uses his or her hands to apply pressure to your skin and muscles. Some massage therapists are specially trained to work with people who have cancer. Ask your doctor for names of massage therapists in your community.
- Relaxation. Activities that help you feel relaxed may help you cope. Try listening to music or writing in a journal.