Salivary Gland Cancer

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The highly skilled cancer experts at UT Southwestern Medical Center have the experience and training to treat salivary gland cancer and other complex head and neck cancers. We provide exceptional care to diagnose and treat the disease, with supportive services to guide patients and their families through the journey back to health.

As the only National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated comprehensive cancer center in North Texas, we deliver the best cancer care available today and push to discover new treatments. NCI designation means we offer patients the ability to participate in the broadest possible range of clinical trials, with access to potential therapies not available at other facilities.

Experienced Care for Salivary Gland Cancer

The salivary glands produce saliva, the fluid in the mouth and throat that begins the process of digesting food and helps prevent infection. There are six major salivary glands, in three sets of two each, and hundreds of minor salivary glands throughout the mouth and throat.

Salivary gland cancers are a type of head and neck cancer. Most salivary gland cancers form in the largest set of salivary glands, the parotid glands, one located in front of each ear.

Surgeons, doctors, nurses, and other providers at the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center specialize in treating cancers of the head and neck. Our team for salivary gland cancer care includes otolaryngologists (ear, nose, and throat specialists), radiation and medical oncologists, oral and reconstructive surgeons, physical and occupational therapists, and speech pathologists.

Causes and Risk Factors of Salivary Gland Cancer

Although it is unclear what exactly causes salivary gland cancer, certain factors can increase the risk of developing it. Not everyone with risk factors will develop salivary gland cancer, and people can develop the disease even if they have no risk factors. Common risk factors include:

  • Age, with most people being diagnosed over age 55
  • Previous radiation therapy to the head or neck
  • Exposure to certain radioactive substances
  • Exposure to substances such as sawdust, pesticides, and certain industrial chemicals and solvents

Patients can help prevent some types of cancer by avoiding certain risk factors. Learn more about head and neck cancer awareness and prevention.

Symptoms of Salivary Gland Cancer

Some people do not experience symptoms, and the symptoms can be the same as those that are caused by other conditions. Patients should see their doctors if they experience any of these symptoms, especially if they persist:

  • Lump or swelling in the mouth, jaw, cheek, or neck, usually painless
  • Pain in the mouth, jaw, cheek, neck, or ear that does not go away
  • Changes in the size or shape of the left and right sides of the face or neck
  • Numbness in the face
  • Difficulty opening the mouth
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Fluid coming from an ear
  • Weakness in the muscles on one side of the face

Diagnosis of Salivary Gland Cancer

Our cancer doctors conduct a thorough evaluation, which includes a:

  • Physical exam
  • Discussion of personal and family medical history
  • Discussion of symptoms and risk factors

To confirm a diagnosis, our doctors might recommend one or more tests, such as:

  • Endoscopy: We use an endoscope (a thin, flexible tube with a lighted camera), which is inserted through the nose or mouth, for a closer look into the mouth and throat.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan: CT uses specialized X-rays with or without a contrast agent to produce cross-sectional 3D images of the throat.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan: MRI uses radio waves and a strong magnet, with or without a contrast agent, to produce detailed images of the throat. MRI can also show whether cancer has spread to lymph nodes in the neck.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan: Using small amounts of radioactive materials and a special camera, PET scans produce highly detailed images that can detect cancerous cells.
  • Biopsy: Our doctors take a small tissue sample using a needle or a small incision that a pathologist analyzes under a microscope for the presence of cancer.

Treatment for Salivary Gland Cancer

Treatment options vary based on the stage of cancer, which includes its size, location, and whether it has spread. Whenever possible, we develop a plan that preserves the patient’s ability to breathe, talk, and eat normally. We typically recommend surgery as the first treatment for salivary gland cancer.

Our treatment options for salivary gland cancer include the following, sometimes in combination: 

Surgery: Patients with early-stage cancer might need only surgery, whereas advanced cancers might require additional treatments. Depending on the extent of the cancer, surgical options include:

  • Superficial parotidectomy to remove part of the parotid salivary gland and possibly the facial nerve, if the cancer has spread to it
  • Total parotidectomy to remove the entire parotid gland and possibly the facial nerve, if the cancer has spread to it
  • Submandibular or sublingual gland surgery to remove either the submandibular or sublingual salivary glands and possibly nearby tissue, bone, or nerves
  • Minor salivary gland surgery to remove tumors in minor salivary glands and nearby tissue
  • Neck dissection to remove one or more lymph nodes or other tissues in the neck, if cancer has spread there

Radiation therapyOur doctors use radiation, treatment with high-energy waves such as X-rays or gamma rays, to treat salivary gland cancer. Radiation therapy can destroy cancer cells left after surgery, and it can also treat inoperable tumors.

Chemotherapy: Anticancer medications work to destroy cancer cells and prevent them from spreading. Although we rarely use chemotherapy to treat salivary gland cancer, it might be necessary to treat cancer that has spread or cannot be removed through surgery or radiation therapy. 

Chemoradiation: Chemotherapy given at the same time as radiation therapy is known as chemoradiation. We might recommend chemoradiation after surgery to remove tumors or to help prevent them from coming back. 

Reconstructive surgery: Patients with advanced salivary gland cancer might need reconstruction after cancer surgery, to replace tissue or nerves if they were removed. Our plastic surgery and ENT experts work together to restore swallowing and other oral functions for a more natural appearance of the throat and neck.

For patients who are having radiation therapy for salivary gland cancer, we recommend having any necessary dental work done before treatment. Radiation treatment slows healing and can cause other side effects. Learn more about cancer and transplant dental care.

At UT Southwestern’s Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center, patients have access to every available treatment option, delivered by the most experienced head and neck cancer specialists in Dallas. Find out more about all the options we offer for head and neck cancer treatment.

Support Services

We offer a variety of head and neck cancer support services for patients and their families, such as:

Clinical Trials

As a medical research institution, UT Southwestern frequently conducts head and neck cancer clinical trials, giving our patients access to the newest treatments. Patients should speak with their doctors about the availability of clinical trials.