Salivary gland cancer is a rare form of cancer that begins in the salivary glands.
Salivary gland cancer can begin in any of the salivary glands in your mouth, neck or throat. Salivary glands make saliva, which aids in digestion, keeps your mouth moist and supports healthy teeth.
You have three pairs of major salivary glands under and behind your jaw — parotid, sublingual and submandibular. Many other tiny salivary glands are in your lips, inside your cheeks, and throughout your mouth and throat.
Salivary gland cancer most commonly occurs in the parotid gland, which is just in front of the ear.
Treatment for salivary gland cancer often involves surgery. Other treatments for salivary gland cancer may include radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
Signs and symptoms of salivary gland cancer may include:
- A lump or swelling on or near your jaw or in your neck or mouth
- Numbness in part of your face
- Muscle weakness on one side of your face
- Persistent pain in the area of a salivary gland
- Difficulty swallowing
- Trouble opening your mouth widely
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with your doctor if you have any signs or symptoms that worry you.
Having a lump or area of swelling near your salivary gland is the most common sign of a salivary gland tumor, but it doesn't mean you have cancer. Most salivary gland tumors are noncancerous (benign). Many other noncancerous conditions may lead to a swollen salivary gland, including an infection or a stone in a salivary gland duct.
It's not clear what causes salivary gland cancer.
Doctors know salivary gland cancer occurs when some cells in a salivary gland develop mutations in their DNA. The mutations allow the cells to grow and divide rapidly. The mutated cells continue living when other cells would die. The accumulating cells form a tumor that can invade nearby tissue. Cancerous cells can break off and spread (metastasize) to distant areas of the body.
Types of salivary gland cancer
Many different types of salivary gland cancer exist. Doctors classify salivary gland cancer based on the type of cells involved in the tumor. The type of salivary gland cancer you have helps your doctor determine which treatment options are best for you.
Types of salivary gland cancer include:
- Acinic cell carcinoma
- Adenoid cystic carcinoma
- Clear cell carcinoma
- Malignant mixed tumor
- Mucoepidermoid carcinoma
- Oncocytic carcinoma
- Polymorphous low-grade adenocarcinoma
- Salivary duct carcinoma
- Squamous cell carcinoma
Factors that may increase your risk of salivary gland cancer include:
- Older age. Though it can occur at any age, salivary gland cancer is most commonly diagnosed in older adults.
- Radiation exposure. Radiation, such as radiation used to treat head and neck cancers, increases the risk of salivary gland cancer.
- Workplace exposure to certain substances. People who work with certain substances may have an increased risk of salivary gland cancer. Jobs associated with salivary gland cancer include those involved in rubber manufacturing, asbestos mining and plumbing.