Salivary Gland Cancer

At the Henry Ford Cancer Institute, our team specializes in head and neck cancer diagnosis and treatment. This means that we have the expertise to identify and treat even more unusual tumors, such as salivary gland tumors.

Salivary gland tumors make up less than 1% of all cancers diagnosed each year in the United States. To receive the best possible care for salivary gland cancer, it is important to consult physicians who have significant experience in treating head and neck cancer.

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Salivary Gland Cancer: Expert Care at Henry Ford

The head and neck cancer specialists at Henry Ford use advanced technology to provide an accurate, precise diagnosis. This enables us to design the most effective treatment plan for you. Our team includes highly skilled surgeons with a superior depth of expertise in head and neck cancer.

We will work closely with you to identify the specific type and location of the tumor, and develop a care plan that resolves the tumor quickly, so that you can recover and get back to your usual life. 

At Henry Ford, you will find:

  • Precise surgery and radiation treatments: We are experts in highly specialized cancer surgery and reconstruction in the delicate areas of the salivary glands, including robot-assisted and minimally invasive procedures. For patients who qualify, we are one of only a handful of programs in the United States to provide stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT), which targets radiation precisely, to spare healthy tissue. Read more about salivary gland cancer treatment.
  • Support for you and your loved ones: Recovering from surgery or other treatment on the delicate salivary glands can be challenging. We offer a full program of support for you and your family before, during and after treatment. We connect you with others who understand what you are going through. Find out more about our patient support services.
  • Cooperative care: We take a coordinated approach across medical disciplines, with a team that includes surgeons, medical doctors, otolaryngologists (ear, nose and throat specialists), speech and swallowing therapists, and behavioral and emotional support staff. Meet our team.

Understanding Salivary Gland Cancer

Salivary gland cancer is a disease where cancerous (malignant) cells grow in the tissues of the salivary glands. These glands produce saliva, the liquid that helps to digest food.

Tumors can grow anywhere in the salivary glands. More than half of salivary gland tumors are benign (not cancerous). These benign tumors do not spread to other parts of the body.

The salivary glands include:

  • Parotid glands: The largest salivary glands are just below and in front of the ear. Most salivary gland tumors begin in these glands.
  • Submandibular glands: These glands are below the jawbone.
  • Sublingual glands: These glands are under the tongue.
  • Small (minor) glands: Hundreds of small, or minor, salivary glands are located throughout the mouth, nose and voice box (larynx).

Risk Factors for Salivary Gland Cancer

Salivary gland cancer is an uncommon cancer. It occurs in 1 of every 100,000 people in the United States.

The specific causes of salivary gland cancer are not known. Some of the suspected risks include:

  • Older age: Most people diagnosed with salivary gland cancer are age 60 or older.
  • Radiation exposure: Radiation therapy treatment of the head and neck (for other conditions) increases the risk of salivary gland cancer. Exposure to radiation at work also can increase the risk.
  • Workplace exposures: Some research indicates that being exposed to certain substances at work can increase the risk of salivary gland cancer. This includes people who work with asbestos, certain metals or minerals, or some other substances.

Symptoms of Salivary Gland Cancer

Salivary gland cancer may not have noticeable symptoms. A doctor or dentist may notice the tumor during a routine examination.

Common symptoms include:

  • A lump in the ear, cheek, jaw, lip or mouth
  • A difference in size or shape of the left and right sides of the face
  • Difficulty opening your mouth widely or swallowing
  • Fluid draining from the ear
  • Pain, numbness or weakness in the face
  • Dramatic weight loss

If symptoms do occur, they may be due to another condition. If you notice any of these symptoms, it is important to schedule an appointment with an experienced head and neck cancer specialist for an accurate diagnosis.

Salivary Gland Diagnosis at Henry Ford

We offer salivary gland tumor evaluation and diagnosis, either as a first consultation or following up on a suspicious area that a doctor or dentist finds during a routine exam. We also provide expert follow-up to provide a second opinion or to monitor patients after treatment.

The first step in salivary gland cancer diagnosis is a physical examination. Your doctor will look for bumps, sores or abnormal areas inside your mouth, as well as on your neck, face or head.
In addition, a physician who suspects salivary gland cancer may order one or more of the following tests:

  • Imaging, such as X-ray, MRI or CT scan: We may order tests to take pictures of the inside of your body. These tests might include a CT (computed tomography) scan, X-rays or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).
  • Biopsy: A biopsy takes a sample of suspicious cells for laboratory examination. In the lab, scientists can determine if cancer is present and needs treatment.
  • Surgery: In some cases, if doctors suspect cancer is present, but cannot get enough information from a biopsy, they may recommend surgery. In this case, surgery can give an answer about whether a tumor is cancerous, and treat the tumor at the same time.
  • PET scan or bone scan: To learn whether cancer has spread in your body, we may order a PET (positron emission tomography) scan or a bone scan. These tests use a mild radioactive substance to check the function of your cells and tissues.

Staging Salivary Gland Cancer

Part of salivary gland cancer diagnosis is identifying the cancer’s stage, or the size of the cancer and whether it has spread. Understanding the stage helps doctors choose the best treatment option for you.

Physicians consider all aspects of the cancer to classify it in one of four stages:

  • Stage I: The tumor is no larger than 2 centimeters (¾ inch) and has not spread into nearby tissues, lymph nodes or elsewhere in the body.
  • Stage II: The tumor is larger than 2 centimeters (¾ inch) but smaller than 4 centimeters (1½ inches). The tumor has not spread to other parts of the body.
  • Stage III: Either the tumor is larger than 4 centimeters (1½ inches) and has not spread, or it is smaller but has spread to nearby tissues or to one lymph node.
  • Stage IV: This stage indicates that the cancer has spread deeper into the tissues, has spread into nearby parts of the body or has spread into the lymph nodes. Physicians use several sub-categories (IVA, IVB or IVC) to describe specifically the tumor’s location and size.


Options for Treatment

Learn more about the treatment options for head and neck cancers

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