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Salivary Gland Cancer

Salivary gland cancer is a rare cancer, representing less than 1 percent of all cancers diagnosed in the United States. Because so few physicians have experience with salivary gland cancer, it’s important to be treated by an oncologist who specializes in head and neck cancers and is knowledgeable about this disease. Our team of head and neck oncologists — including Dr. Ezra Cohen, a nationally known expert in salivary gland cancer — has years of expertise dealing with salivary gland cancer.

Our Services

We provide expertise in all aspects of care for salivary gland cancer, including:
  • Experienced oncologists to ensure an accurate diagnosis
  • Personalized and supportive care, with state-of-the-art genetic tumor testing to individualize treatment options
  • Dedicated head and neck surgeons with extensive experience in minimally invasive robotic and laser surgeries to minimize scarring
  • Opportunities to participate in novel clinical trials, including some that are unique to our center
  • A head and neck team, including experts in voice and swallowing rehabilitation
  • All the resources of a world-class cancer center, including nutrition advice, support groups, and mind/body classes

Diagnosing and Treating Salivary Gland Cancer

Despite its rarity, there are many types of salivary gland cancers and a broad spectrum of tumor types, including benign tumors and low-risk cancers, as well as more aggressive cancers that have a high chance of spreading to the lymph nodes.

A diagnosis is often made when patients notice a lump or swelling in the mouth, cheek, jaw, or neck, especially one that begins to enlarge or cause pain or numbness. An oncologist can perform a physical exam and may use imagining tests, such as MRI or CT technology, or a biopsy to determine whether a tumor is cancerous and, if so, to determine the stage of the cancer.

Salivary gland cancers are most often treated with surgery first and, depending on the type of tumor, sometimes followed with radiation and possibly chemotherapy. Because of the location of the salivary glands and surrounding delicate anatomic structures such as the facial nerve, removing tumors is a complex surgery that requires an experienced head and neck surgical oncologist.

Our surgeons take care to preserve the surrounding structures and nerves whenever possible, and to minimize any cosmetic or functional issues resulting from surgery. For each surgery, we take a personalized approach, taking into account the need to monitor these tumors in the future.

Radiation therapy is often used after surgery to kill any cancer cells that may remain. In rare cases when it is not possible to remove a tumor, salivary gland cancer may be treated with radiation alone. At UC San Diego Health, your care is overseen by radiation oncologists who specialize in head and neck cancers.

About Salivary Gland Cancer

Salivary gland cancer begins in one of the many different glands that make saliva and release it into the mouth. Most cancers form in the parotid glands, just in front of the ear, but they can also be found in the sublingual glands (under the tongue), the submandibular glands (below the jawbone), or other small glands in the mouth, nose, and larynx. Most tumors in the salivary glands, however, are not cancerous.

Types of Salivary Gland Cancers

There are many types of salivary gland cancers, named according to the type of cell they resemble. They include:

  • Mucoepidermoid carcinoma, the most common type of salivary gland cancer. It often starts in the parotid glands but can develop in others.
  • Adenoid cystic carcinoma
  • Many types of salivary gland adenocarcinomas, including acinic cell carcinoma, polymorphous low-grade adenocarcinoma (PLGA), and others, some very rare
  • Malignant mixed tumors

Symptoms and Risks

Most symptoms of salivary gland cancer could also be caused by other conditions or by a benign tumor. They may include:

  • Lump, swelling, or pain that does not go away in the mouth, cheek, jaw or ear
  • Facial numbness
  • Muscle weakness on one side of the face
  • Trouble swallowing or opening mouth widely

Risk factors for salivary gland cancers are not well understood, but there are some correlations with a history of smoking or exposure to radiation or heavy metals. About two-thirds of these cancers occur in people age 55 and over.