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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:
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:
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:
Tests that examine the head, neck, and the inside of the mouth are used to detect (find) and diagnose salivary gland cancer.
The following procedures may be used:
Because salivary gland cancer can be hard to diagnose, patients should ask to have the tissue samples checked by a pathologist who has experience in diagnosing salivary gland cancer.
Certain factors affect treatment options and prognosis (chance of recovery).
The treatment options and prognosis (chance of recovery) depend on the following:
After salivary gland cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the salivary gland or to other parts of the body.
The process used to find out if cancer has spread within the salivary glands or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment. The following procedures may be used in the staging process:
There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.
Cancer can spread through tissue, the lymph system, and the blood:
Cancer may spread from where it began to other parts of the body.
When cancer spreads to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. Cancer cells break away from where they began (the primary tumor) and travel through the lymph system or blood.
The metastatic tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if salivary gland cancer spreads to the lung, the cancer cells in the lung are actually salivary gland cancer cells. The disease is metastatic salivary gland cancer, not lung cancer.
The following stages are used for major salivary gland cancers:
Pea, peanut, walnut, and lime show tumor sizes.
In stage I, the tumor is in the salivary gland only and is 2 centimeters or smaller.
In stage II, the tumor is in the salivary gland only and is larger than 2 centimeters but not larger than 4 centimeters.
In stage III, one of the following is true:
Stage IV is divided into stages IVA, IVB, and IVC as follows:
Salivary gland cancers are also grouped by grade. The grade of a tumor tells how fast the cancer cells are growing, based on how the cells look under a microscope. Low-grade cancers grow more slowly than high-grade cancers.
Minor salivary gland cancers are staged according to where they were first found in the body.
Recurrent salivary gland cancer is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. Recurrent salivary gland cancer may come back in the salivary glands or in other parts of the body.
There are different types of treatment for patients with salivary gland cancer.
Different types of treatment are available for patients with salivary gland cancer. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Patients with salivary gland cancer should have their treatment planned by a team of doctors who are experts in treating head and neck cancer.
Your treatment will be overseen by a medical oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating people with cancer. Because the salivary glands help in eating and digesting food, patients may need special help adjusting to the side effects of the cancer and its treatment. The medical oncologist may refer you to other doctors who have experience and expertise in treating patients with head and neck cancer and who specialize in certain areas of medicine. These include the following:
Three types of standard treatment are used:
Surgery (removing the cancer in an operation) is a common treatment for salivary gland cancer. A doctor may remove the cancer and some of the healthy tissue around the cancer. In some cases, a lymphadenectomy (surgery in which lymph nodes are removed) will also be done.
Even if the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the surgery, some patients may be given radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy:
Special types of external radiation may be used to treat some salivary gland tumors. These include:
The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated. External radiation therapy is used to treat salivary gland cancer, and may also be used as palliative therapy to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life.
Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.
See Drugs Approved for Head and Neck Cancer for more information. (Salivary gland cancer is a type of head and neck cancer.)
New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.
This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
Radiosensitizers are drugs that make tumor cells more sensitive to radiation therapy. Combining radiation therapy with radiosensitizers may kill more tumor cells.
Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.
For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.
Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.
Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.
Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.
Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.
Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. See the Treatment Options section that follows for links to current treatment clinical trials. These have been retrieved from NCI's listing of clinical trials.
Follow-up tests may be needed.
Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.
Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.
Stage I Salivary Gland Cancer
Treatment for stage I salivary gland cancer depends on whether the cancer is low-grade (slow growing) or high-grade (fast growing).
If the cancer is low-grade, treatment may include the following:
If the cancer is high-grade, treatment may include the following:
Check the list of NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage I salivary gland cancer. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. Talk with your doctor about clinical trials that may be right for you. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
Stage II Salivary Gland Cancer
Treatment for stage II salivary gland cancer depends on whether the cancer is low-grade (slow growing) or high-grade (fast growing).
Check the list of NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage II salivary gland cancer. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. Talk with your doctor about clinical trials that may be right for you. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
Stage III Salivary Gland Cancer
Treatment for stage III salivary gland cancer depends on whether the cancer is low-grade (slow growing) or high-grade (fast growing).
Check the list of NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage III salivary gland cancer. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. Talk with your doctor about clinical trials that may be right for you. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
Stage IV Salivary Gland Cancer
Treatment of stage IV salivary gland cancer may include the following:
Check the list of NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage IV salivary gland cancer. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. Talk with your doctor about clinical trials that may be right for you. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
Treatment of recurrent salivary gland cancer may include the following:
Check the list of NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with recurrent salivary gland cancer. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. Talk with your doctor about clinical trials that may be right for you. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
For more information from the National Cancer Institute about salivary gland cancer, see the following:
For general cancer information and other resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:
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This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about the treatment of salivary gland cancer. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.
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Clinical Trial Information
A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Clinical trials are listed in PDQ and can be found online at NCI's website. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
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PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. PDQ Salivary Gland Cancer Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/patient/salivary-gland-treatment-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389192]
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Last Revised: 2016-08-19
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Last modified on: 8 September 2017