Mucoepidermoid carcinoma is a type of salivary gland cancer. It does not always cause symptoms, but when symptoms occur, they can include facial pain and tenderness, facial paralysis, jaw spasms, and more.

Surgery is the main treatment for mucoepidermoid carcinomas. Doctors may also recommend adjuvant radiation therapy to shrink the tumor and treatments to manage symptoms.

Read on to learn more about mucoepidermoid carcinomas. This article examines how this type of cancer develops, how doctors diagnose it, and treatment strategies.

a surgeon is performing a procedure on mucoepidermoid carcinomasShare on Pinterest
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Cancer occurs due to genetic changes that dictate how cells grow and copy themselves.

Environmental substances and factors, such as exposure to radioactive materials, can damage the cells. Mucoepidermoid carcinoma may be the type of salivary gland cancer that most commonly develops due to radiation exposure.

One treatment for cancer is radiation therapy, in which a cancer doctor targets cancer cells with radioactive materials. A 2008 study found that people who received radiation therapy for Hodgkin’s lymphoma had a higher risk of salivary gland tumors. These individuals also had a particularly high risk of mucoepidermoid carcinoma.

Learn more about the side effects of radiation exposure.

Numerous different cells form a mucoepidermoid carcinoma tumor. These include:

  • Epidermoid cells: This tissue has features of the body’s outer skin layer, such as traces of a protein called keratin. Epidermoid cells in the tumor are particularly aggressive, meaning that they are likely to spread or grow.
  • Intermediate cells: These cells go on to develop into glandular cells or epidermoid cells.
  • Mucous cells: These cells produce mucus in the body.

Learn more about carcinomas.

Mucoepidermoid carcinomas do not always cause symptoms. However, when they do, symptoms of mucoepidermoid carcinomas can include:

  • an asymptomatic mass
  • pain
  • facial paralysis
  • tenderness
  • fluids draining from the ear
  • difficulties swallowing
  • jaw spasms or lockjaw

Learn more about the symptoms of salivary gland cancer.

To diagnose mucoepidermoid carcinoma, a doctor may begin by taking a full medical history, asking questions about symptoms, and performing a physical examination.

Several methods can help the doctor confirm the diagnosis and identify the type of salivary gland tumor.

These diagnosis techniques include biopsies, where a doctor collects tissue to send to a lab for examination under a microscope. This can help them identify mucoepidermoid carcinoma and how advanced or aggressive it is. They may use an ultrasound machine to guide a needle for collecting the biopsy sample.

The doctor may also request imaging tests to view a more detailed image of the suspected cancer. Possible imaging tests include:

The doctor will be able to advise on the tests they order and what they involve.

Treating mucoepidermoid carcinoma involves removing cancerous tissue, destroying remaining cancer cells, and helping a person manage any symptoms.

A 2022 review explained the typical course of treatment for mucoepidermoid carcinomas. They include the techniques below.


This is the main treatment for mucoepidermoid carcinoma. A surgeon removes cancerous salivary gland tissue, leaving noncancerous tissue around it intact.

A surgeon may also carry our lymph node dissection if the tumor has spread to the lymph nodes.

The surgeon may recommend reconstructive surgery afterward to restore facial function, swallowing, and breathing, depending on the affected tissue.

Adjuvant radiation therapy

If mucoepidermoid cells spread beyond their original site, the cancer care team may administer radiation before or after surgery.

This can help them shrink the tumor before removal or destroy any remaining cancer cells after surgery.

Learn more about adjuvant therapy.

Systemic therapies

A doctor may recommend systemic therapies as part of a treatment plan. While these cannot specifically treat mucoepidermoid carcinoma, they can help a person manage symptoms.

Examples of systemic therapies include:

  • chemotherapy
  • targeted therapy
  • immunotherapy

According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, mucoepidermoid carcinomas account for 35% of all cancers of the major and minor salivary glands.

In the United States, salivary gland cancer is uncommon. According to the American Cancer Society, doctors diagnose around 2,000–2,500 cases of salivary cancer annually.

The outlook for someone with mucoepidermoid carcinoma can vary. The 5-year survival rate for low-grade mucoepidermoid carcinoma is more than 90%.

However, for high-grade mucoepidermoid carcinoma, the 5-year survival rate may be as low as 30%. This is because of the risks of recurrence or metastasis — the latter refers to the cancer spreading to other parts of the body.

A person’s doctor can provide more information about their outlook according to their circumstances.

The survival rate refers to the proportion of people who are still alive for a length of time after receiving a particular diagnosis. For example, a 5-year survival rate of 50% means that 50%, or half, of the people are still alive 5 years after receiving the diagnosis.

It is important to remember that these figures are estimates and derive from the results of previous studies or treatments. A person can consult a healthcare professional about how their condition will affect them.

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Mucoepidermoid carcinomas are the most common salivary gland cancer. They may develop due to radiation therapy for other cancers.

Possible symptoms include an asymptomatic mass, facial paralysis, pain, tenderness, and jaw spasms. The condition can also affect swallowing and cause fluid to drain from the ear.

Treatment usually involves surgery. A person with mucoepidermoid carcinomas may need adjuvant radiation therapy.

It is best to contact a doctor as soon as a person experiences symptoms of mucoepidermoid carcinoma. The doctor can order tests such as a biopsy and imaging tests. After diagnosis, they can advise on a suitable treatment plan and provide information about a person’s outlook.