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Cancer Health Center

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Salivary Gland Cancer Treatment (PDQ®): Treatment - Patient Information [NCI] - General Information About Salivary Gland Cancer

Salivary gland cancer is a rare disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the salivary glands.

The salivary glands make saliva and release it into the mouth. Saliva has enzymes that help digest food and antibodies that help protect against infections of the mouth and throat. There are 3 pairs of major salivary glands:

  • Parotid glands: These are the largest salivary glands and are found in front of and just below each ear. Most major salivary gland tumors begin in this gland.
  • Sublingual glands: These glands are found under the tongue in the floor of the mouth.
  • Submandibular glands: These glands are found below the jawbone.

Anatomy of the salivary glands. The three main pairs of salivary glands are the parotid glands, the sublingual glands, and the submandibular glands.

There are also hundreds of small (minor) salivary glands lining parts of the mouth, nose, and larynx that can be seen only with a microscope. Most small salivary gland tumors begin in the palate (roof of the mouth).

More than half of all salivary gland tumors are benign (not cancerous) and do not spread to other tissues.

Salivary gland cancer is a type of head and neck cancer.

Being exposed to certain types of radiation may increase the risk of salivary cancer.

Anything that increases the chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk. Although the cause of most salivary gland cancers is not known, risk factors include the following:

  • Older age.
  • Treatment with radiation therapy to the head and neck.
  • Being exposed to certain substances at work.

Signs of salivary gland cancer include a lump or trouble swallowing.

Salivary gland cancer may not cause any symptoms. It may be found during a regular dental check-up or physical exam. Signs and symptoms may be caused by salivary gland cancer or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • A lump (usually painless) in the area of the ear, cheek, jaw, lip, or inside the mouth.
  • Fluid draining from the ear.
  • Trouble swallowing or opening the mouth widely.
  • Numbness or weakness in the face.
  • Pain in the face that does not go away.
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