What is salivary gland cancer?

Salivary gland cancer occurs when malignant (cancerous) cells form in the tissues of the salivary glands. A type of Head and Neck Cancer, salivary gland cancer is very rare.

Medical illustration of head and neck cancer regions.

The salivary glands are located throughout the jaw including under the tongue, above the jawbone and near the ears. Salivary glands make saliva, which is made up of enzymes that help us digest food and release antibodies that help fight infection in the mouth and throat. 

While there are hundreds of microscopic salivary glands throughout the mouth, nose and throat, there are three primary salivary glands:

  • Parotid glands - the largest salivary glands and found in front of and below each ear; this is where most salivary gland tumors begin.
  • Sublingual glands - found under the tongue in the bottom of the mouth
  • Submandibular glands - found below the jawbone

More than half of the salivary gland tumors are benign (not cancerous) and do not metastasize (spread) to other tissues. As with other cancers, however, salivary gland cancer (which can often initially go undetected because early signs are difficult to pinpoint) have specific types. Additionally, cancer cells can spread to surrounding tissues, cartilage, bones or other parts of the body. 

Prognosis and treatment options vary depending on each person’s own genetic makeup, location of the cancer cells and the stage of the cancer.

What are the risk factors for salivary gland cancer?

A risk factor is anything that increases your chance of developing a disease. Having risk factors, however, does not necessarily mean you will get cancer, so it’s important to know your own personal risk factors and discuss any concerns with your doctor. 

Currently, specific salivary gland cancer risk factors are not known, although research is ongoing, but scientists believe they may be either environmental and/or genetic. 

Possible risk factors include:

  • Older age
  • Prior treatment with radiation therapy to the head or neck 
  • Exposure to cancer causing substances (carcinogens) at work
  • Prevention
  • While the cause of salivary gland cancer is currently unknown, researchers continue to look for primary causes. In the meantime, Miami Cancer Institute experts recommend taking certain steps to help prevent or reduce your risk for many diseases. 

These involve changing lifestyle behaviors and certain environmental exposures, including:

  • Eliminating tobacco use
  • Reducing alcohol consumption
  • Avoiding exposure to toxic chemicals 
  • Getting vaccinated for Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

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