8 symptoms of salivary gland cancer

salivary gland cancer
While there may be no symptoms associated with salivary gland cancer, here are 8 potential signs to look out for if you suspect you have this cancer.

There may be no symptoms of salivary gland cancer, which may be discovered during a routine dental or physical exam.

When present, the 8 symptoms of salivary gland cancer may include:

  1. A lump on the side of the jaw or under the chin is the most common symptom of salivary gland cancer.
  2. One of the salivary glands has a firm, usually painless swelling in front of the ears, under the chin, or on the floor of the mouth. The swelling gradually worsens.
  3. Difficulty swallowing or opening the mouth wide.
  4. Pain that persists in the mouth, cheek, jaw, neck, or ear.
  5. Numbness in the face.
  6. A distinction between the right and left sides of the face or neck.
  7. Facial nerve palsy (inability to move one side of the face).
  8. Either of the ears may have ear discharge.

Cancers of the salivary gland spread by invading nearby tissue. Tumors that have spread locally may involve the facial nerve.

  • The tumor can cause facial paralysis, including facial drooping, and the inability to close the eye on the affected side.
  • Salivary gland cancers can spread to muscles in the mouth and at the base of the skull, as well as to local lymph glands (nodes).

Other known symptoms include facial pain, ear pain, headache, and swollen lymph glands.

How common are cancers of the salivary gland?

Salivary gland tumors, also called neoplasms, are uncommon and, for the most part, are noncancerous (benign). According to the American Cancer Society, they occur at a rate of about 1 case per 100,000 people per year in the United States.

When benign or cancerous (malignant) tumors develop, they are mostly found in the three major pairs of the salivary glands.

  1. Parotid: The largest salivary glands, located in front of the ears in each cheek. The parotid gland is the site of origin for the majority of salivary gland tumors and most of them are benign (noncancerous).
  2. Submandibular: Located underneath the floor of the mouth on both sides of the jaw. According to the American Cancer Society, 1 to 2 out of every 10 salivary gland tumors originate in the submandibular gland, with approximately half of these being malignant.
  3. Sublingual: It is located beneath the floor of the mouth. Tumors in these glands are uncommon.

Most salivary gland tumors are benign (not cancer). These are rarely life-threatening and are unlikely to spread. Benign tumors can exist for years with little change.

Salivary gland cancer is caused by a mutation in the DNA of salivary gland cells, which results in abnormal cells that rapidly grow and reproduce to form a tumor. Researchers are still trying to figure out what causes most salivary gland cancers.

Certain risk factors, however, have been identified that may increase the likelihood of developing the disease.

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7 risk factors of salivary gland cancer

Here are 7 six risk factors for developing salivary gland cancer:

  1. Male gender
  2. As a person gets older, the risk increases
  3. Those who are exposed to radiation, either as part of their medical treatment or as a result of their job, could be at a higher risk
  4. Although rare, there may be a genetic link to salivary gland cancer
  5. Patients having human immunodeficiency virus or Epstein–Barr virus infection are at the risk of developing salivary gland cancer
  6. According to research, there may be a link between salivary gland cancer and certain metals and manufacturing materials
  7. Tobacco and alcohol use and diet are other risk factors, which require further research

To diagnose the tumor, the doctor may use computed tomography or magnetic resonance imaging and a physical examination.

The only sure way to confirm salivary gland cancer is with a biopsy. The mass is then examined under a microscope for cancer cells.

What are the treatment options for salivary gland cancer?

Treatment for salivary gland cancer is determined by the type, size, and stage of cancer, as well as the patient’s age and any other medical conditions they may have.

Once a diagnosis is made, the doctor collaborates with other doctors to develop a treatment plan.

Surgery

  • Salivary gland cancer is commonly treated with surgery.
  • A surgeon may remove cancer, as well as some of the healthy tissue surrounding it. In some cases, a lymphadenectomy (removal of lymph nodes) will be performed as well.
  • Even if the doctor removes all visible cancer during the surgery, some patients may require radiation therapy afterward to kill any cancer cells that remain.
  • Following the removal of the tumor and lymph nodes, reconstructive surgery may be required, depending on the circumstances.

Radiotherapy

  • Radiation therapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses high-energy X-rays or other types of radiation to kill or stop the growth of cancer cells. Radiation therapy is classified into two types.
  • External radiation therapy employs the use of a machine located outside the body to direct radiation toward cancer.
  • Interstitial radiation therapy involves the use of a radioactive substance that is sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are inserted directly into or near cancer.
  • The way the radiation therapy is administered is determined by the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Chemotherapy

  • Chemotherapy employs drugs to halt the growth of cancer cells either by killing them or preventing them from multiplying.

Cancer treatment may differ with people and largely depends on the type of cancer. Treatment may even sometimes differ from what is described in this article. Clinical trials are being used to research and test new treatment options.

Patients with salivary gland cancer have a good prognosis if detected and treated early.

It is important to remember that all medical treatments have the potential for side effects and risks, so patients should ask their care team for these details and, if necessary, additional clarification. Before, during, and after treatment, patients should not be afraid to ask questions.

Cancer can become recurrent, which means that it returns after treatment. If this occurs, doctors may offer the patient additional treatment options.

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Medically Reviewed on 1/21/2022
References
Image Source: iStock Images

American Cancer Society. Signs and Symptoms of Salivary Gland Cancer. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/salivary-gland-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/signs-and-symptoms.html

National Institutes of Health. Salivary Gland Cancer Treatment (Adult) (PDQ®)–Patient Version. https://www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/patient/adult/salivary-gland-treatment-pdq

THANC Guide. Salivary Gland Cancer. https://thancguide.org/cancer-types/salivary-gland/

Son E, Panwar A, Mosher CH, Lydiatt D. Cancers of the Major Salivary Gland. J Oncol Pract. 2018 Feb;14(2):99-108. https://ascopubs.org/doi/full/10.1200/JOP.2017.026856

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek. Salivary gland cancer. https://www.avl.nl/en/information-about-cancer/types-of-cancer/salivary-gland-cancer/