What Is Salivary Gland Cancer?

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Salivary gland cancer is a rare cancer that affects one of the three main pairs of glands located in the mouth and throat. These glands are responsible for the production of saliva (spit), which lines and lubricates the mouth and throat. Saliva also helps begin the food digestion process.

This article will provide an overview of salivary gland cancer, discussing the types, symptoms, and treatment options.

Symptoms of Salivary Gland Cancer

Verywell / Theres Chiechi

What Is Salivary Gland Cancer?

Salivary gland cancer affects any of the three major salivary glands: the parotid glands, submandibular glands, and sublingual glands. Of the three types of major salivary glands, cancer is most likely to occur in the parotid glands. There are also hundreds of minor salivary glands. Minor salivary glands are very small, and cancer in these glands is rare.

Types of Salivary Gland Cancer

Salivary glands are complex and made up of many different cells, which allows for several different types of cancer to develop. There are types as well as grades, which are divided into three categories based on how abnormal the cells appear when examined:

  • Grade 1 (low-grade): These can appear like normal cells, with the cancer developing slowly. This grade has a positive outlook for treatment.
  • Grade 2 (intermediate-grade): These cells present somewhere between grades 1 and 3, appearing mostly normal.
  • Grade 3 (high-grade): These cells appear the most abnormal. They grow extremely quickly, which means cancer cells in this grade have a poorer outlook.

Mucoepidermoid Carcinoma

This type of salivary gland cancer occurs most often in the parotid glands, and less so in the other glands. It is the most common type of salivary gland cancer. Mucoepidermoid carcinomas tend to be low-grade.

Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma

This type of salivary gland cancer grows slowly. It tends to spread along nerves and often reoccurs after treatment.


Adenocarcinomas originate in the salivary gland cells and are further differentiated into multiple subtypes, including:

  • Acinic cell carcinomas: Typically form in the parotid gland. They tend to grow slowly and be low-grade. They have been known to affect younger individuals.
  • Polymorphous low-grade carcinoma: Typically start in the minor salivary glands. These are often slow-growing and have a positive outlook for remission or cure.
  • Unspecified adenocarcinoma: These present as cancer cells, but are difficult to distinguish between the adenocarcinoma types.

There are also various types of rare adenocarcinomas, including (but not limited to) basal cell adenocarcinomas, clear cell carcinomas, and sebaceous adenocarcinomas.

Malignant Mixed Tumors

Malignant mixed tumors of the salivary glands are quite rare and can be further differentiated into carcinoma ex pleomorphic adenoma, carcinosarcoma, and metastasizing mixed tumors.

What Causes Salivary Gland Cancer?

The exact cause of salivary gland cancer is still unknown.

However, there are certain risk factors that can predict the development of salivary gland cancer. These include a previous history of radiation exposure or exposure to other cancer-causing chemicals, being an older adult, and a person's sex. Salivary gland cancers are more common in men than women.


Symptoms of salivary gland cancer depend on a variety of factors, including the location and size of the tumor and whether or not the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

The primary symptoms of this type of cancer include:

  • Pain in the face, neck, or mouth
  • A palpable or visible lump on the neck or side of the face
  • Drooping or numbness on the side of the face
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Difficulty opening the mouth
  • A lump or sore inside the mouth
  • Bleeding in the mouth

Diagnosing Salivary Gland Cancer

To diagnose salivary gland cancer, a physician will begin by taking a detailed medical history, reviewing your symptoms, and discussing your general health. This may be followed by a physical examination.

The following imaging tests are used to detect salivary gland cancer:

If imaging scans show signs of salivary gland cancer, a biopsy will be performed to formally diagnose it. A biopsy involves removing cells from the affected area and sending them to a lab for analysis and detection of cancer cells.

If cancer is diagnosed, you will be referred to an oncologist who specializes in salivary gland cancer for treatment.


The treatment of salivary gland cancer is dependent on the stage, but the primary treatment is surgery.

Cancer that is diagnosed in the early stages, prior to spread, can often be cured with surgical removal of the tumor. In later stages, surgery is often combined with localized radiation treatment to kill any remaining cancer cells.

Cancer that has spread often requires a combination of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy to treat.


Most patients with salivary gland cancer can recover fully and achieve remission after treatment.

As with other types of cancer, physicians use staging to describe and classify the progression of salivary gland cancer. This is useful in facilitating communication between medical professionals and in determining treatment and prognosis.

Salivary gland cancer diagnosed in the earlier stages presents the best outcome and chances for remission. Cancer in the later stages and cancer that reoccurs have worse outcomes. Recurrent cancer requires aggressive ongoing treatment.

A Word From Verywell

A cancer diagnosis can be scary and overwhelming. Fortunately, there are successful treatment options for salivary gland cancer. If you recognize symptoms of salivary gland cancer, be sure to meet with your physician as soon as possible to arrive at a diagnosis.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Cleveland Clinic. Salivary gland cancer.

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By Kristin Hayes, RN
Kristin Hayes, RN, is a registered nurse specializing in ear, nose, and throat disorders for both adults and children.