Salivary gland cancer: Symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment

Salivary glands produce saliva, which keeps the mouth moist and helps the body with digestion. Salivary gland cancer is a rare cancer that starts in the tissue of one of these glands.

In the United States, salivary gland cancer is responsible for less than 1 percent of all cancers. It affects 1 in every 100,000 people. There are estimated to be 2,000-2,500 cases each year in the U.S.

Common treatments include surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Avoiding risk factors can help reduce the likelihood of diagnosis; however, a genetic cause may play a role.

Fast facts on salivary gland cancer:

It is a very rare form of cancer, making up less than 1 percent of all cancers in the U.S.

Diagnosis is typically carried out by imaging tests and incisional biopsy.

Complications include Frey’s syndrome and facial drooping.

What is salivary gland cancer?

A woman holding the side of her jaw where the salivary glands are located
The salivary glands are located in the mouth, they may be painful if there is cancer.

The mouth contains many salivary glands, some major and some minor. Salivary gland cancer occurs when one of these glands develops a cancerous tumor. There are 3 pairs of major salivary glands:

The parotid glands, positioned just in front of each ear, are the largest salivary glands; they are the most likely to develop a tumor.

The sublingual glands are found under the tongue; they are the smallest of the major salivary glands.
The submandibular glands are below the jaw.

There are 450-750 microscopic minor salivary glands all around the mouth. Locations include:

the sinuses

the tongue

inside the cheeks

the nose

the larynx

voice box

Tumors are less likely to occur in these minor glands, but if one does develop, there is a 50-50 chance that it will be cancerous, or malignant. Salivary gland tumors can be benign or malignant, and they include hematolymphoid tumors, such as Hodgkin lymphoma.


A person who has salivary gland cancer may experience:

Difficulty in opening mouth completely.

Weak facial muscles on one side of the face.

Swelling or a lump around jaw, mouth, or neck area.

Noticeable difference in the shape of one side of the neck or face.

Part of the face feels numb.

The salivary gland is in constant pain.

Any painless lump that is not linked to an infection should be investigated.

Man going into a CT scanner machine
Diagnosis is aided by imaging tests, including computed tomography (CT) scans.

The physician will ask the patient about their medical history and examine the sides of the face, the mouth, and the area around the jaw. If any lymph nodes seem to be enlarged, this could be a sign of cancer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *