The salivary glands are organs on each side of the face that produce saliva. There are several types of salivary gland cancers, which grow at different rates. The rate of growth may also depend on the cancer stage.
When a person receives a salivary gland cancer diagnosis, a doctor typically categorizes the cancer into one of four stages. The higher the number, the faster the cancer may grow.
This article discusses salivary gland cancer types, staging, treatment, and when to speak with a healthcare professional.
There are several salivary glands in a person’s body, which are either major or minor. There are hundreds of minor, minuscule salivary glands. There are fewer major salivary glands,
- parotid glands, which are the largest salivary glands, in front of the ears
- submandibular glands, which are below the jaw
- sublingual glands, which are the smallest major salivary glands, underneath the mouth’s floor and below each side of the tongue
There are several types of salivary gland cancers, which all grow at different rates and can affect any of the salivary glands, including:
- Adenoid cystic carcinoma: This is the
most commontype of salivary gland cancer. These tumors are typically slow-growing and may cause facial pain and tingling. They commonly affect the minor salivary glands.
- Mucoepidermoid carcinomas: These are the most common major salivary gland cancer tumors, which typically affect the parotid gland. They are typically slow-growing, but they may grow and spread more quickly.
- Acinic cell carcinoma: This is the third most common type of salivary gland tumor to affect the parotid gland. It is typically slow-growing and has a high survival rate.
- Polymorphous adenocarcinoma: This type of cancer typically affects the minor salivary glands, especially in the soft palate. In rare cases, it may affect the parotid gland. It is often slow-growing and can grow and spread more quickly.
- Secretory carcinoma: This salivary gland cancer typically affects the minor salivary glands and is usually slow-growing.
- Adenocarcinoma: This cancer has several types, most of which are typically slow-growing. However, two types may grow and spread more quickly. These are oncocytic carcinoma and salivary gland duct carcinoma.
When diagnosing salivary gland cancer, a doctor categorizes it into one of four stages, depending on how fast the cancer has grown and spread.
The system a doctor typically uses to determine the stage of salivary gland cancer is the American Joint Committee on Cancer’s TNM system. This system has three factors:
- T: the salivary gland tumor’s size and whether it has spread to nearby structures in the body
- N: whether the salivary gland cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes
- M: whether the salivary gland cancer has spread to distant organs, like the lungs
Typically, the higher the stage of salivary gland cancer, the faster the tumor grows. The four stages include:
- Stage 0: The cancer cells are present in the salivary duct lining, but a tumor has not formed yet.
- Stage 1: The tumor is
no greater than 2 centimeters (cm)and has not spread.
- Stage 2: The tumor is 2–4 cm in size and has not spread.
- Stage 3: This stage occurs in two further stages:
- 3A: The tumor is larger than 4 cm and may have spread into other nearby tissues.
- 3B: The tumor of any size may have spread into nearby tissue and has already spread to one nearby lymph node.
- Stage 4: This stage occurs in three further stages:
- 4A: The tumors have spread into the skin surrounding the salivary gland, jawbone, ear canal, or facial nerve. They may have spread to one lymph node, no bigger than 3 cm. Or they may have spread to more than one lymph node, no greater than 6 cm.
- 4B: The tumors may have spread into surrounding tissue or the skull base and the carotid artery, the main blood vessel in the neck. They may have spread to multiple lymph nodes and measure between 3–6 cm.
- 4C: The tumors have spread to another body part, such as the lungs.
There are three main types of salivary gland cancer treatments that a doctor may use,
- surgery to remove the cancerous tumors and potentially some of the surrounding tissue
- radiation therapy
Healthcare professionals can detect salivary gland cancer early. Typically, the earlier a person receives treatment for salivary gland cancer, the better their outlook may be.
If a person has any of the
- pain in the mouth, jaw, cheeks, neck, or ear that does not subside
- numbness in part of the face
- difficulty swallowing
- challenges opening the mouth fully
- a lump or swollen area of the neck, cheeks, jaw, or mouth
- swelling, drooping, or muscle weakness on one side of the face
- changes in the shape or size of the left and right sides of the neck or face
A doctor can figure out whether salivary gland cancer causes the symptoms someone experiences and provide appropriate treatment, if necessary.
There are several salivary glands and various types of salivary gland cancers. Some forms of the cancer may grow faster than others.
Healthcare professionals group a person’s salivary gland cancer into one of four stages during the diagnostic process. Typically, the higher the number, the faster the cancer may grow.
Doctors may treat salivary gland cancer with surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.
It is a good idea for a person to contact a healthcare professional immediately if they notice any potential symptoms of salivary gland cancer. A doctor can detect the underlying cause of the symptoms and recommend appropriate treatment.