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We’ll work with you to create a personalized treatment plan that meets your unique needs. By collaborating with other world-renowned cancer researchers and incorporating groundbreaking discoveries, our experts design the best, most effective therapies for you.

What is salivary gland cancer?

Salivary gland cancer is a rare type of head and neck cancer. It develops when cancerous (malignant) cells form in the tissues of your salivary glands.

Medical illustration of head and neck cancer regions.

Your salivary glands are located throughout your jaw. They are under your tongue, above your jawbone and near your ears. These glands make saliva. Saliva contains enzymes that help you digest food and that release antibodies that help you fight mouth and throat infections.

Your mouth, nose and throat contain hundreds of salivary glands. But there are three primary salivary glands.

  • Parotid glands: These are your largest salivary glands. They are in front of and below your ear. Most salivary gland tumors begin here.
  • Sublingual glands: These glands sit under your tongue at the bottom of your mouth.
  • Submandibular glands: These glands sit below your jawbone.

Some salivary gland cancer cells can spread to surrounding tissues, cartilage, bones or other parts of your body. But more than half of salivary gland tumors are noncancerous (benign), and they don’t spread (metastasize). Your treatment options and outcome will depend on your genetics, as well as the location and stage of your cancer. Most people fully recover from salivary gland cancer with an early diagnosis.

Symptoms of Salivary Gland Cancer

Cancerous and noncancerous salivary gland tumors can produce similar symptoms. Talk with your doctor if you experience:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Facial muscle weakness
  • Lump or swelling in your cheek, jaw, mouth or neck
  • Numbness in part of your face
  • Pain in your cheek, ear, jaw, mouth or neck that lingers
  • Recent difference in the size or shape of either side of your face or neck
  • Trouble opening your mouth wide

According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for cancer that hasn’t spread is 94 percent. If cancer spreads, the five-year survival rate drops to 43 percent.

Risk Factors for Salivary Gland Cancer

Currently, experts don’t know the specific risk factors for salivary gland cancer. Researchers believe many of them may be environmental or genetic. Some jobs like asbestos mining, plumbing or rubber manufacturing may increase the risk for salivary gland cancer.

Having a risk factor doesn’t mean you will develop salivary gland cancer, but it will increase your chances for developing the disease.

Possible risk factors include:

  • Exposure to cancer-causing substances at work (certain metals or mineral dust)
  • Heavy cellphone use (linked to noncancerous parotid gland tumors)
  • Older age (average age at diagnosis is 55, and risk continues to increase)
  • Prior radiation therapy to your head or neck
  • Smoking
  • Viral infections (exposure to human papillomavirus (HPV), HIV or Epstein-Barr)

Preventing Salivary Gland Cancer

Researchers are still investigating what causes salivary gland cancer. In the meantime, our experts at Baptist Health Miami Cancer Institute recommend several lifestyle changes that can help prevent or reduce your risk of disease.

These changes include:

  • Avoiding toxic chemical exposures
  • Drinking less alcohol
  • Eliminating tobacco use
  • Getting vaccinated for HPV
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