Salivary Gland Cancer | Symptoms | MedStar Health

Salivary gland cancers are malignant (cancerous) growths found in saliva-producing glands: the parotid, submandibular or sublingual, plus hundreds of minor glands.

Because of the rarity of salivary gland cancer, patients often have to travel for specialized treatment. But we offer special expertise with these tumors, researching how they occur and how best to treat them.

Risk factors

No one knows why cells grow out of control and form salivary gland tumors. But there are several risk factors:

  • Previous radiation therapy
  • Older age
  • Exposure to certain workplace substances


Symptoms of salivary gland cancer may include:

  • Lumps in the mouth or neck
  • Bleeding sores in the mouth
  • Sore throat
  • Facial movement weakness
  • Numbness or tingling in the face or neck

Other conditions can also cause these symptoms, so it’s important to see a doctor right away.


To make a diagnosis, our doctors:

  • Take a full medical history
  • Perform a complete head and neck exam
  • Possibly remove a small amount of the tumor during a biopsy, for further study
  • Potentially run lab and imaging tests, including:
    • X-ray
    • MRI
    • CT (CAT) scan
    • PET scan
  • Endoscopy: inserting a flexible tube called a scope with a light and camera down the nose and throat

These exams and tests help the doctor determine:

  • The type of cancer and its stage
  • How aggressive it is
  • Whether it has spread
  • How best to treat


Treatment options for salivary gland cancer depend on:

  • The type of cells and gland where the cancer develops
  • The cancer’s stage and grade (speed of growth)
  • The tumor’s size
  • Preserving your ability to eat
  • Your age and general health

Salivary gland cancer is usually treated with surgery, radiation, or a combination. Surgical advances now let us safely and effectively operate near the base of the skull, and improvements in reconstructive techniques mean we can remove more tumors but still preserve your quality of life. We also use special monitoring to protect any nerves that are at risk.

While chemo is not often used to treat salivary gland cancers right now, we are studying new drugs and new ways to use them for advanced cancers. We also have clinical trials in radiation therapy and targeted therapy.

Follow-up care

Patients who have had salivary gland cancer are at risk of developing a second head or neck cancer, and our doctors also want to catch any original cancer that might return. After treatment, they will ask you to come in for regular checkups, as frequently as once a month for the first year.

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