Salivary Gland Cancer

What is salivary gland cancer?

Salivary gland cancer is a rare category of cancer which affects the salivary glands. Most cases of salivary gland cancer develop in the parotid glands, but the majority of lumps in the salivary glands are benign (non-cancerous). There are two types of salivary glands – major and minor glands – and their function is to produce saliva. There are three main pairs of major salivary glands, called the sublingual, parotid and submandibular glands.

Types of salivary gland cancer

There are many different types of salivary gland cancer, but the most common forms are:

  • Mucoepidermoid cancers
  • Acinic cancers
  • Adenoid cystic cancers

What are the causes of salivary gland cancer?

The cause of salivary gland cancer is unknown, but some risk factors are thought to be linked:

  • Age: the risk of developing salivary gland cancer increases as you get older and this form of cancer tends to affect people over the age of 50
  • HPV (human papilloma virus)
  • Exposure to radiation
  • Family history
  • Squamous cell skin cancer: if you have had this form of cancer, you have a slightly higher risk of developing salivary gland cancer

Symptoms of salivary gland cancer

The most common symptom of salivary gland cancer is a lump in the throat. Most lumps in the throat are benign but it is best to have a doctor examine your current condition. Other symptoms include:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Localised pain
  • Drooping in the face (on one side)
  • Inflammation on one side of the face
  • Numbness (in part of the face)

How is salivary gland cancer diagnosed?

If any of the above symptoms do become apparent you should visit your GP. Your GP will ask you for details on relevant symptoms you might have noticed and also examine you. If you have a lump near your jaw and other symptoms of salivary gland cancer a cancer specialist will be called in to test your symptoms, including X-rays, fine needle aspiration, MRI or CT scan. The test results will enable doctors to confirm a diagnosis.

How is salivary gland cancer treated?

The most common form of treatment for salivary gland cancer is surgery but chemotherapy and radiotherapy possibly will be used. After surgery the option of radiotherapy might be required to try and reduce the risk of cancer returning and it can also be used as the main treatment if surgery is not possible.

What is the outlook for people with salivary gland cancer?

Like most other forms of cancer the outlook generally depends on the stage of cancer. If the cancer is diagnosed early the prognosis is much more positive. The outlook for salivary gland cancer is fairly encouraging, with around 75 percent of women and 60 percent of men living for at least 10 years after diagnosis.

Living with salivary gland cancer

Living with salivary gland cancer can be difficult, both physically and emotionally, and no two cases will ever be the same. Your care team will oversee every aspects of your medical care but they can also offer emotional support. If you need any further information or you simply wish to talk to somebody, you can contact one the cancer charities operating in the UK.

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