Salivary gland cancer starts in one of the salivary glands. It's not just one disease. There are actually several different salivary glands found inside and near your mouth. Many types of cancer and benign (non-cancerous) tumors can develop in these glands.
Salivary glands make saliva - the lubricating fluid found in the mouth and throat. Saliva contains enzymes that begin the process of digesting food. It also contains antibodies and other substances that help prevent infections of the mouth and throat.
The 2 main types of salivary glands are the major salivary glands and minor salivary glands.
There are 3 sets of major salivary glands on each side of the face:
There are also several hundred minor salivary glands that are too small to see without a microscope. These glands are under the lining of the lips and tongue; in the roof of the mouth; and inside the cheeks, nose, sinuses, and larynx (voice box). Tumors in these glands are uncommon, but they are more often cancerous than benign. Cancers of the minor salivary glands most often start in the roof of the mouth.
Signs and symptoms of a salivary gland tumor may include:
Salivary gland tumors are rare, accounting for less than 10 percent of all head and neck tumors. It's not clear what causes salivary gland tumors.
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.
Many different types of salivary gland tumors exist. Doctors classify salivary gland tumors based on the type of cells involved in the tumors. Knowing the type of salivary gland tumor you have helps your doctor determine which treatment options are best for you.
The most common benign salivary gland tumor is a pleomorphic adenoma. This is typically a slow-growing tumor that occurs most often in the parotid gland. Other benign salivary gland tumors include:
Types of malignant salivary gland tumors include:
Factors that may increase your risk of salivary gland tumors include:
Treatment for salivary gland cancer depends on the type, size and stage of salivary gland cancer you have, as well as your overall health and your preferences. Salivary gland cancer treatment usually involves surgery, with or without radiation therapy.
Surgery for salivary gland cancer may include:
Salivary gland surgery can be difficult because several important nerves are located in and around the glands. For example, a nerve in the face that controls facial movement runs through the parotid gland. Removing tumors that involve important nerves may require damaging the nerves, causing partial paralysis of your face. Surgeons take care to preserve these nerves whenever possible. In some cases, severed nerves can be repaired with nerves taken from other areas of your body.
Radiation therapy uses high-powered energy beams, such as X-rays, to kill cancer cells. During radiation therapy, you lie on a table while a machine moves around you, directing high-powered beams at specific points on your body. A newer type of radiation therapy that uses particles called neutrons may be more effective in treating certain salivary gland cancers. However, neutron radiation therapy isn't widely available in the United States.
Radiation therapy can be used after surgery to kill any cancer cells that might remain. If surgery isn't possible because a tumor is very large or is located in a place that makes removal too risky, radiation alone may be used to treat salivary gland cancer.
Chemotherapy is a drug treatment that uses chemicals to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be an option for people with advanced salivary gland cancer that has spread to distant areas of their bodies. Chemotherapy isn't currently used as a standard treatment for salivary gland cancer, but researchers are studying its use.
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