Salivary gland cancer
Cancer that starts in the salivary gland is rare. It can happen in people of any age, but is more common in people over 50.
This information should be read with our information about head and neck cancers
, which has further details about the tests and treatments mentioned below. If you have more questions, you can ask your doctor or nurse at the hospital where you are having your treatment. If you’d like to order booklets or have any questions, contact our cancer support specialists
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The salivary glands make saliva (spit). This keeps your mouth moist and helps food slide down the gullet into the stomach. The largest salivary glands are:
sublingual glands – underneath the tongue
parotid glands – at the sides of the mouth just in front of the ears
submandibular glands – under the jawbone.
There are also many more tiny glands in the lining of the nose, mouth and throat. These are known as the minor salivary glands.
Symptoms of salivary gland cancer
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The most common symptom of salivary gland cancer is a swelling on the side of the face, just in front of the ear or under the jawbone. Some people also have pain, numbness or drooping on one side of their face (facial palsy).
These symptoms can be caused by other conditions but it’s important to have them checked by your doctor.
Diagnosing salivary gland cancer
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You usually start by seeing your GP. If they are unsure what the problem is or think that your symptoms could be caused by cancer, they will refer you to a hospital specialist.
At the hospital, the specialist doctor will ask you about your symptoms and general health before examining you. They will check your mouth using a small mirror and light. They may use a nasoendoscope which is a very thin, flexible tube with a light and camera at the end. The doctor will gently put this up your nose to get a better view of the back of your mouth and throat.
To make a diagnosis, the doctor may put a fine needle into the swelling or abnormal area and withdraw a sample of cells into a syringe. This is called a fine needle aspiration. It’s a quick test but may be uncomfortable.
A pathologist (doctor who specialises in analysing cells) examines the cells under a microscope to look for signs of cancer.
These tests may be used to help diagnose salivary gland cancer and to check whether it has spread:
This test uses sound waves to build up a picture of an area of your head or neck on a computer screen. The scan is painless and only takes a few minutes. Some gel is spread onto your face or neck and a small device, which produces sound waves, is passed over the area.
CT (computerised tomography) scan
A CT scan takes a series of x-rays that build up a three-dimensional picture of the inside of the body. The scan is painless and takes 10–30 minutes. CT scans use a small amount of radiation, which is very unlikely to harm you and won’t harm anyone you come into contact with. You'll be asked not to eat or drink for at least four hours before the scan.
You may be given a drink or injection of a dye that allows particular areas to be seen more clearly. This may make you feel hot all over for a few minutes. If you’re allergic to iodine or have asthma, you could have a more serious reaction to the injection, so it’s important to let your doctor know beforehand.
MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan
An MRI scan is similar to a CT scan but uses magnetism instead of x-rays to build up a detailed picture of areas of your body. Before the scan you may be asked to complete and sign a checklist. This is to make sure that it’s safe for you to have the scan.
Before the scan, you’ll be asked to remove any metal belongings, including jewellery. Some people are given an injection of dye into a vein in the arm. This is called a contrast medium and can help the images from the scan to show up more clearly. During the test, you will be asked to lie very still on a couch inside a long cylinder (tube) for about 30 minutes. It’s painless but can be slightly uncomfortable, and some people feel a bit claustrophobic during the scan. It’s also noisy, but you’ll be given earplugs or headphones.
Staging and grading of salivary gland cancer
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The stage of a cancer describes its size and whether it has spread. Knowing the stage of the cancer helps the doctors decide on the best treatment for you. The two most commonly used staging systems for salivary gland cancer are the TNM and the number system.
TNM staging system
T describes the size of the tumour and whether it has grown into nearby tissues. For example, a T1 salivary gland tumour is small and hasn’t spread outside the gland. A T4 salivary gland tumour has spread into nearby skin, bones, nerves or other areas of the head or skull.
N describes whether the cancer has spread to the neck lymph nodes. The lymph nodes are part of your body’s system to protect you from infection and disease. N0 means that no lymph nodes are affected by cancer. N1, N2 or N3 means there are cancer cells in the neck lymph nodes.
M describes whether the cancer has spread to another part of the body. This is called metastatic cancer. M0 means the cancer hasn’t spread and M1 means the cancer has spread to organs such as the liver or lungs.
Number staging system
Salivary gland cancer can also be given a number stage from 1 to 4:
Stage 1 The tumour is 2cm or less and only in the salivary gland. This would be called T1 N0 M0 in the TNM system.
Stage 2 The tumour is between 2–4cm across and only in the salivary gland.
Stage 3 The tumour is stage 1 or 2 but has started to spread to the neck lymph nodes or the tumour is larger than 4cm and/or has grown into tissues around the salivary gland and may have also started to spread to the neck lymph nodes.
Stage 4 The tumour is stage 1, 2 or 3 and/or has spread further through the neck lymph nodes and/or has spread to other parts of the body. Or the tumour has grown further into nearby skin, bones, nerves or other areas of the head or skull and/or may have also spread to the neck lymph nodes and/or has spread to other parts of the body.
Talking about staging
To keep things simple, your doctor may use the following words to describe the stage of the cancer:
early or local – to describe cancer that hasn't spread
locally advanced – to describe cancer that has spread into nearby tissues or lymph nodes
local recurrence – to describe cancer that has come back in the head or neck after treatment
advanced or widespread – to describe cancer that has spread to distant organs.
The grade of a cancer gives the doctor an idea of how quickly it may develop. Doctors will look at a sample of the cancer cells under a microscope to find the grade of the cancer:
Grade 1 – the cancer cells tend to grow slowly and look quite similar to normal cells.
Grade 2 and 3 – the cancer cells look more abnormal.
Grade 4 – the cancer cells tend to grow more quickly and look very abnormal.
Treatment for salivary gland cancer
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Your treatment will depend on the position, stage and grade of the cancer and your general health. The main treatment for salivary gland cancer is usually surgery. Radiotherapy is often given after surgery to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back. It may also be given if cancer is left behind or comes back after treatment. Sometimes radiotherapy can be given as the main treatment if surgery isn’t possible.
Radiotherapy or chemotherapy can also be used to control the symptoms of salivary gland cancer that has spread.
Surgery is used to remove all or as much of the cancer as possible. The type of surgery you have depends on the size and position of the tumour. The surgeon may only remove the salivary gland if the cancer is small and hasn’t spread. But sometimes they will also need to remove nearby tissue or bone if it is affected by the cancer.
The thought of having any type of surgery to your head and face can be frightening. Your surgeon will explain what to expect and answer any questions before your operation. Your surgery is planned carefully by a team of specialist surgeons. They will try to avoid changes to your appearance or to areas of your mouth or face that help you talk, swallow or eat.
If your surgery means removing any of these areas, the surgeon may rebuild them with tissue, skin or bone taken from somewhere else in your body. If part of the roof of your mouth is removed, the surgeon will fit a special piece of plastic (called an obturator) into the missing area. This covers any gaps in the roof of the mouth to help you speak and eat.
The surgeon usually removes some of your neck lymph nodes during surgery even if they don’t show signs of cancer. This is to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back.
How long you stay in hospital depends on the operation you have. Some people will have a small operation at a hospital day surgery and go home the same day. But if your surgery is more complicated, you might stay in hospital for up to three weeks. You may be looked after in a high-dependency unit or intensive care for a while after the operation.
As you recover, you may see a dietitian and speech therapist to help you to cope with any changes to your speech or swallowing. If you have an obturator, you will regularly see a restorative dentist who will make sure it fits well as your mouth heals.
Side effects of surgery
These will depend on the type of operation you have. Your speech, swallowing or your sense of taste and smell might be affected. Some operations may leave scars or a change in your appearance.
It’s important to prepare for this kind of surgery. You can discuss your operation fully with your surgeon so that you know what to expect and how it will affect you. You may also find the useful organisations listed below helpful.
Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to destroy the cancer cells, while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells.
You have treatment in small doses (called fractions) over 5–7 weeks from a radiotherapy machine similar to an x-ray machine. It is usually given as a daily dose from Monday to Friday with a break at weekends. Radiotherapy does not make you radioactive.
Radiotherapy may also be used to control symptoms, such as pain, if the cancer has spread to other areas of the body. In this case you might only need a few days of treatment or just a single dose.
Side effects of radiotherapy
You may develop side effects during radiotherapy. These usually disappear gradually over a few weeks or months after treatment finishes. Your radiotherapy team will let you know what to expect. Tell them about any side effects you have. There are often things that can be done to help.
Most side effects get better after treatment ends. However, many people have a dry mouth after their treatment is over. Radiotherapy to the head and neck can cause other long term effects. These aren’t as common but can happen months or even years after your treatment.
Our section about head and neck cancer has more information about radiotherapy, coping with side effects and the long-term effects.
Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. This treatment is sometimes given to treat the symptoms of salivary gland cancer that has spread.
Side effects of chemotherapy
The side effects depend on the drug or combination of drugs you are given. Your doctor or nurse will explain any treatment you are offered and what to expect. Let them know about any side effects during treatment. They can often prescribe drugs to reduce these.
Chemotherapy can reduce the number of white cells in your blood. This will make you more likely to get an infection. Your doctor or nurse will give you advice about what to do if this happens.
Chemotherapy can also cause side effects such as feeling tired, a sore mouth, feeling sick (nausea) or being sick (vomiting) and hair loss. Let your doctor or nurse know about any side effects you have so they can prescribe drugs to help relieve symptoms.
We have more information about coping with the side effects of chemotherapy and about different chemotherapy drugs.
Cancer research trials are carried out to try to find new and better treatments for cancer. Trials that are done on patients are known as clinical trials.
Research into treatments for salivary gland cancer is ongoing and advances are being made. But because this type of cancer is rare, there may not always be a trial in progress. If there is, you may be asked to take part. Your doctor must discuss the treatment with you so that you have a full understanding of the trial and what it means to take part. You may decide not to take part or to withdraw from a trial at any stage. You will still receive the best standard treatment available.
Follow-up for salivary gland cancer
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You will have regular check-ups once your treatment has finished. These will probably continue for several years.
If you have any problems or notice any symptoms between these times, let your doctor know as soon as possible.
You may have many different emotions, from shock and disbelief to fear and anger. At times these feelings can be overwhelming and hard to control. But they are natural and it’s important to be able to express them.
Everyone has their own way of coping. Some people find it helps to talk to family or friends, while others get help from people outside their situation. Sometimes it’s helpful to share your experiences at a local cancer support group. You may want to talk to our cancer support specialists free on 0808 808 00 00, Monday to Friday, 9am–8pm. Some people prefer to keep their feelings to themselves.
There’s no right or wrong way to deal with this, but help is available if you need it. Talking to other people in a similar position may help you feel less alone. Some of the useful organisations listed below can provide this, as well as specialist advice and counselling. Our online community is also a good place to meet people who may be in a similar situation.
Changing Faces supports people who have conditions or injuries that affect their appearance. Offers a skin camouflage service for people living with scarring or a skin condition that affects their appearance and confidence.
Let's Face It
Let's Face It is a support network for people with facial disfigurements.
The Mouth Cancer Foundation
The Mouth Cancer Foundation gives information and support through their website and telephone helpline to people affected by head and neck cancers.
Tel: 01924 950 950
Rarer Cancers Foundation
The Rarer Cancers Foundation offers guidance, information and support for people affected by rare types of cancer.
This page has been compiled using information from a number of reliable sources. If you’d like further information on the sources we use, please feel free to contact us.
This information was reviewed by a medical professional.
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