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Salivary Gland Cancer

What is Salivary Gland Cancer?

Salivary gland cancer is a type of cancer that affects the salivary glands in the head and neck region. Most people know that they have salivary glands under their tongue, but there are actually three large pairs of salivary glands. One pair is in front of your ears, and the other two are under the jaw. You also have small salivary glands in your mouth and throat.

Salivary glands produce saliva, which keeps your mouth moist, helps you swallow and digest food, and also helps keep your teeth healthy.

Is salivary gland cancer rare?

Salivary gland cancer is very rare, occurring in less than one percent of people with cancer. About one in 100,000 people are affected by this type of cancer each year. Salivary gland tumors make up about 7% of head and neck tumors.

Tumors in the salivary glands can be cancerous or non-cancerous. Sometimes an imaging study can tell the difference but most often a biopsy is needed to determine this. but Some people develop noncancerous tumors in their salivary glands. There are over 20 different types of salivary gland cancers with the most common types including salivary duct carcinoma, mucoepidermoid carcinoma, and adenocarcinoma.

Additionally, some cancers can start in other parts of the body and spread to the salivary glands. These include lymphoma and skin cancers including squamous cell carcinoma of the skin and melanoma.

Having a risk factor for something does not mean that you will develop that condition, but it may make you more susceptible to it. The risk factors for salivary gland cancer include:

  • Age — the average age at diagnosis is 64
  • Male sex — men are more likely than women to get this type of cancer
  • Exposure to radiation

Other suspected (not proven) risk factors include:

  • Tobacco use (smoking or chewing tobacco)
  • Workplace exposure to materials like, certain metals, wood dust, or pesticides

Any tumor in your face or neck, benign or cancerous, can cause problems with the nerves in your face, which can lead to numbness, muscle weakness, or trouble swallowing. If the tumor is cancerous, the cancer can spread to other parts of your head and neck and body, which can effect other organs.

Symptoms of this type of cancer can be limited to the face and neck, and may at first seem to indicate other illnesses that are not serious. However, symptoms that do not seem serious but nevertheless linger for a long time should always be checked by a doctor.

Symptoms may include:

  • Pain in the mouth, neck, cheek, or jaw
  • Ear pain or fluid drainage
  • Swelling or lumps on the neck, jaw, face, or mouth
  • Facial numbness or weakness on one side
  • Trouble swallowing

An important part of any diagnosis is talking with your doctor. At UPMC, your doctor will need to know your medical history, ask about your current health, and discuss any risk factors you may have for this type of cancer.

Test to diagnose salivary gland cancer

Your doctor will examine you, feeling for any lumps or bumps on your face, neck, and mouth. You may need other tests, including:

If any results are abnormal, you may have a biopsy to identify cancerous cells. During a biopsy, a small piece of tissue is removed so a pathology specialist can examine it.

If the biopsy confirms that you have cancer, the combination of the results from the physical exam and imaging tests will reveal its stage, and this information will help to guide your treatment plan.

Treatment for your cancer depends on its stage and whether it has spread. Most head and neck cancers are treated using surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy, or a combination of at least two of these. Your medical team at UPMC will create a personalized treatment plan for you.

Chemotherapy: During chemotherapy, medications are administered orally or through an IV. Chemotherapy can make you feel sick and can sometimes affect other organs like the liver, so your team will monitor your health closely during chemotherapy to watch for side effects. Some people remain in the hospital during treatment, but others return home after treatment.

Learn more about chemotherapy.

Radiation: Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays or concentrated radioactive material to kill cancer cells. UPMC offers several types of radiation therapy, all of which have been developed to target the cancer and affect healthy tissue as little as possible. Radiation has some side effects, which may include dry mouth, skin problems, and fatigue.

Learn more about radiation therapy.

Surgery: UPMC offers innovative, cutting-edge surgical techniques to treat salivary gland cancer. The goal of surgical treatment is to remove as much cancer as possible while leaving healthy tissue alone. Minimally invasive surgery such as robotic surgery has several benefits, which include better surgical precision and shorter hospital stays.

Learn more about surgical options at UPMC.

UPMC has provided high-quality services to Pittsburgh, the surrounding areas, and to people around the world for more than 30 years.

Our team of experts who focus on head and neck cancer every day includes:

  • Ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialists
  • Surgeons
  • Medical and radiation oncologists
  • Audiologists
  • Speech pathologists

We are a trusted national and international leader in head and neck cancer care, providing proven and cutting-edge services to each person we see, and conducting research to constantly improve the care we deliver.

Contact Us

To make an appointment for head and neck cancer care at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, call 412-647-2811.