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Salivary Gland Cancer

Salivary gland cancer may occur in any of the salivary glands, including the major ones: the parotid glands, submandibular glands and sublingual glands. Even minor salivary glands located throughout the mouth and throat can be affected.

While most masses within the minor salivary glands and sublingual glands are cancer, some are benign masses.


The symptoms of salivary cancer may include:

  • Salivary gland pain
  • Facial pain
  • Facial numbness
  • Facial muscle weakness
  • Lump or swelling on or near the cheek, jaw, lip, neck or mouth
  • Inability to open mouth widely

Cancer types

Cancers develop as masses that may or may not produde pain.

When a cancer occurs in the parotid gland it may affect the facial nerve, causing weakness or asymmetry in the facial nerve.

Salivary gland cancers include, in order of frequency:

  • Mucoepidermoid cancer
  • Adenoid cystic cancer
  • Acinic cell carcinoma
  • Squamous cell carcinoma
  • Adenocarcinoma
  • Salivary duct carcinoma

Salivary gland cancers are grouped into low-grade and high-grade cancers. For low-grade, slow-growing cancers, surgical removal may be sufficient. High-grade cancers may need radiation or chemotherapy. 


If a mass is suspected of being cancer, a surgeon may perform a fine needle aspiration of the tissue.

A fine needle aspiration involves placing a small needle into the tissue and removing some cells. The cells are examined under a microscope to form a diagnosis.

This is a minimally invasive procedure which is performed in the office with only local anesthesia.

If the sample is confirmed to be cancerous, further tests such as CT scans or MRI can help determine the extent of cancer.


Treatment of salivary gland cancer is removal of the affected gland. This may involve a parotidectomy or submandibular gland resection. If the disease has spread to the neck, a neck dissection may be necessary.

After removal, the cancer is examined under a microscope. If the cancer is fast-growing, radiation or chemotherapy may be necessary to ensure all remaining cancer cells are gone.

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