Understanding Salivary Gland Cancer | Types | Tumor Grades | Risk Factors | Staging | Symptoms | Diagnosing | Resources
Salivary glands make and release saliva that lubricates your mouth and throat, starts the digestion of your food, and coats the lining of the upper airway to help protect you from infections. Tumors, either benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer), can arise in any of these glands.
There are three pairs of major salivary glands and more than 1,000 microscopic salivary glands:
Located in front of your ears on either side of your head, these are your largest salivary glands. About 80 percent of salivary gland tumors start in these glands. About 75 percent of these tumors are benign (usually a type called pleomorphic adenomas) and 25 percent are malignant.
These are just under your mandible, or jaw bone, about halfway between your chin and your ear. About 10 to 15 percent of salivary gland tumors start here. About half of the tumors arising in these glands are benign and half are malignant.
These are in your mouth under your tongue on either side. Tumors are not as common in these glands. The majority of tumors arising in these glands are malignant.
You also have over 1000 microscopic salivary glands around your head and neck. We call these the minor salivary glands. Tumors in these glands are not common, but when they occur about 25 percent are benign and 75 percent are malignant.
There are many different types of salivary gland tumors, based on the type of cell where the tumor starts:
These are the most common examples of malignant tumors, but other types of cancers can occur as well. One way that doctors group malignant salivary gland tumors is by grade. The grade of a tumor is based on how normal the cancer cells look and how quickly they grow or spread.
Cells look very normal and grow slowly. Outcome tends to be good when physicians can perform a surgical resection (removing the tumor through surgery). Also called low grade or well differentiated.
Cell appearance and outcome falls between grade 1 and 3. Also called intermediate grade or moderately differentiated.
Cells look very abnormal and grow or spread quickly. Outcome tends to be poor. Also called high grade or poorly differentiated. Physicians often use radiation therapy in addition to surgery for grade 3 tumors.
Doctors have not been able to link salivary gland tumors to many risk factors (factors that increase your chance of getting a tumor). In most cases, there is no evidence to tell us what caused the DNA changes in the salivary gland cells that led to a tumor. These factors may increase the risk in some cases:
Depending on the stage of your salivary gland tumor and the effects it’s having on your body, your doctor may recommend a combination of treatment options.
If your tumor is cancer, your physician will try to determine the stage. The stage reflects how large the tumor is, whether it has spread and, if it has, how far. There is a specific staging system only for major salivary gland tumors. (Tumors arising in minor salivary glands are often staged in the same manner as for the more common epithelial, or squamous cell, tumors arising in the same location.)
Stage I: The tumor is no larger than 2 centimeters (cm) in diameter. It is only within the salivary gland. It is not invading nearby tissue, and it has not spread anywhere else.
Stage II: The tumor is between 2 cm and 4 cm. It is only within the salivary gland. It is not invading nearby tissue, and it has not spread anywhere else.
Stage III: This stage applies in either of these cases:
Stage IVA: This stage applies in either of these cases:
Stage IVB: This stage applies in either of these cases:
Stage IVC: The tumor is any size and has spread to distant sites in the body. It may also have spread to nearby tissue and lymph nodes.
Symptoms that might occur if you have a salivary gland tumor include:
Other conditions besides tumors may cause these symptoms, too. If you have any of these symptoms, see your physician for an evaluation.
If your doctor thinks you might have a salivary gland tumor, the physician will ask about your health history and give you a physical exam, with special attention to your salivary glands, mouth, and neck. The physician may also check for numbness or weakness in your face.
Imaging studies can also help your doctor determine whether you have a tumor and whether it has spread. These include a computed tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, and positron emission tomography (PET) scan.
If your physician finds a tumor, the next step is to have a biopsy to remove tumor cells and check whether they are cancer, and if so, which type. There are two types of biopsies you may have:
There are many resources online for learning about your disease. Health educators at the Fred Hutch Patient and Family Resource Center have compiled a list of trusted sources to help you get started.
Whether you are newly diagnosed, going through treatment or know someone with cancer, our staff are available to tailor personalized resources and answer questions about support options in the community.
Our list of online resources provides accurate health information from reliable and reputable sources, like the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN).
American Cancer Society (ACS): Overview of Salivary Gland Cancer
If you have salivary gland cancer or are close to someone who does, knowing what to expect can help you cope. Here you can find out all about salivary gland cancer, including risk factors, symptoms, how it is found and treated.
American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO): Guide to Salivary Gland Cancer
This is Cancer.Net's Guide to salivary gland cancer. Here you can learn more about salivary gland cancer, treatment, the latest research and clinical trials.
National Cancer Institute (NCI): Salivary Gland Cancer-Patient Version
The NCI is the federal government's principal agency for cancer research and training. Here you can find more information about salivary gland cancer treatment, research and coping with cancer.