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Salivary gland tumors

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Apr 26, 2023.

Overview

Salivary gland tumors are growths of abnormal cells (tumors) that begin in the salivary glands. Salivary gland tumors are rare.

Salivary glands make saliva, which aids in digestion, keeps your mouth moist and supports healthy teeth. You have three pairs of major salivary glands under and behind your jaw — parotid, sublingual and submandibular. Many other tiny salivary glands are in your lips, inside your cheeks, and throughout your mouth and throat.

Salivary gland tumors can begin in any of your salivary glands. Most are noncancerous (benign), but sometimes they can be cancerous. Most salivary gland tumors occur in the parotid glands.

Treatment for salivary gland tumors is usually with surgery to remove the tumor. People with salivary gland cancers may need additional treatments.

Salivary glands

There are three pairs of major salivary glands — parotid, sublingual and submandibular. Each gland has its own tube (duct) leading from the gland to the mouth.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of a salivary gland tumor may include:

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor if you have any persistent signs or symptoms that worry you.

Having a lump or an area of swelling near your salivary gland is the most common sign of a salivary gland tumor, but it doesn't mean you have cancer. Most salivary gland tumors are noncancerous (benign). Many other noncancerous conditions may lead to a swollen salivary gland, including an infection or a stone in a salivary gland duct.

Causes

Salivary gland tumors are rare. Their cause isn't clear.

Salivary gland tumors begin when some cells in a salivary gland develop changes (mutations) in their DNA. A cell's DNA contains the instructions that tell a cell what to do.

The changes tell the cells to grow and divide rapidly. The abnormal cells go on living when healthy cells would die. The accumulating cells form a tumor.

If additional changes happen in the DNA, the abnormal cells may become cancerous. Cancer cells can invade and destroy nearby tissue. They can also break away from the tumor and spread (metastasize) to distant areas of the body.

Types of salivary gland tumors

Many different types of salivary gland tumors exist. Doctors classify salivary gland tumors based on the type of cells involved in the tumors. Knowing the type of salivary gland tumor you have helps your doctor determine which treatment options are best for you.

Types of noncancerous (benign) salivary gland tumors include:

Types of cancerous (malignant) salivary gland tumors include:

  1. Acinic cell carcinoma
  2. Adenocarcinoma
  3. Adenoid cystic carcinoma
  4. Clear cell carcinoma
  5. Malignant mixed tumor
  6. Mucoepidermoid carcinoma
  7. Oncocytic carcinoma
  8. Polymorphous low-grade adenocarcinoma
  9. Salivary duct carcinoma
  10. Squamous cell carcinoma

Risk factors

Factors that may increase your risk of salivary gland tumors include:

Diagnosis

Tests and procedures used to diagnose salivary gland tumors include:

Determining the extent of salivary gland cancer

If you're diagnosed with salivary gland cancer, your doctor will determine the extent (stage) of your cancer. Your cancer's stage determines your treatment options and gives your doctor an idea of your prognosis.

Cancer stages are identified by Roman numerals, with stage I indicating a small, localized tumor and stage IV indicating an advanced cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes in the neck or to distant parts of the body.

Treatment

Treatment for salivary gland tumors is usually with surgery to remove the tumor. People with salivary gland cancers may need additional treatments, such as with radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Surgery

Surgery for salivary gland tumors may include:

Salivary gland surgery can be difficult because several important nerves are located in and around the glands. For example, a nerve in the face that controls facial movement runs through the parotid gland.

Removing tumors that involve important nerves may require stretching or cutting the nerves. This can cause partial or complete paralysis of your face (facial droop) that can be temporary or, in some situations, permanent. Surgeons take care to preserve these nerves whenever possible. Sometimes severed nerves can be repaired with nerves taken from other areas of your body or with processed nerve grafts from donors.

Radiation therapy

If you're diagnosed with salivary gland cancer, your doctor may recommend radiation therapy. Radiation therapy uses high-powered energy beams, such as X-rays and protons, to kill cancer cells. During radiation therapy, you lie on a table while a machine moves around you, directing high-powered beams at specific points on your body.

A newer type of radiation therapy that uses particles called neutrons may be more effective in treating certain salivary gland cancers. More study is needed to understand the benefits and risks of this treatment. Neutron radiation therapy isn't widely available in the United States.

Radiation therapy can be used after surgery to kill any cancer cells that might remain. If surgery isn't possible because a tumor is very large or is located in a place that makes removal too risky, your doctor may recommend radiation alone or in combination with chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a drug treatment that uses medications to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy isn't currently used as a standard treatment for salivary gland cancer, but researchers are studying its use.

Chemotherapy may be an option for people with advanced salivary gland cancer. It's sometimes used in combination with radiation therapy.

Supportive (palliative) care

Palliative care is specialized medical care that focuses on providing relief from pain and other symptoms of a serious illness. Palliative care specialists work with you, your family and your other doctors to provide an extra layer of support that complements your ongoing care. Palliative care can be used while undergoing other aggressive treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

When palliative care is used along with all of the other appropriate treatments, people with cancer may feel better and live longer.

Palliative care is provided by a team of doctors, nurses and other specially trained professionals. Palliative care teams aim to improve the quality of life for people with cancer and their families. This form of care is offered alongside curative or other treatments you may be receiving.

Lifestyle and home remedies

Coping with dry mouth

People who undergo radiation therapy to the head and neck area often experience very dry mouth (xerostomia). Having a dry mouth can be uncomfortable. It can also lead to frequent infections in your mouth, cavities and problems with your teeth, and difficulty eating, swallowing and speaking.

You may find some relief from dry mouth and its complications if you:

Tell your doctor if you have dry mouth. Treatments may help you cope with more-severe signs and symptoms of dry mouth. Your doctor may also refer you to a dietitian who can help you find foods that are easier to eat if you're experiencing dry mouth.

Alternative medicine

No complementary or alternative medicine treatments can cure salivary gland tumors. If you're diagnosed with salivary gland cancer, complementary and alternative medicine treatments may help you cope with the side effects of cancer treatment.

Complementary treatments for fatigue

Many people undergoing radiation therapy for cancer experience fatigue. Your doctor can treat underlying causes of fatigue, but the feeling of being utterly worn out may persist despite treatments.

Complementary therapies can help you cope with fatigue. Ask your doctor about trying:

Coping and support

Learning you have a salivary gland tumor can be frightening. Each person deals with this diagnosis in his or her own way. With time you'll discover ways of coping that work for you. Until then, you might find some comfort if you:

Preparing for an appointment

If you have any signs or symptoms that worry you, make an appointment with your family doctor or dentist.

If your doctor or dentist suspects you may have a salivary gland tumor, you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in diseases of the face, mouth, teeth, jaws, salivary glands and neck (oral and maxillofacial surgeon) or to a doctor who specializes in diseases that affect the ears, nose and throat (ENT specialist).

Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot of information to consider, it's a good idea to be well prepared. Here's some information to help you get ready, and know what to expect from your doctor.

What you can do

Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions can help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For salivary gland tumors, some basic questions to ask include:

In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask other questions that occur to you during your appointment.

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may allow time later to cover other points you want to address. Your doctor may ask:

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