Salivary gland cancer occurs when the genetic material of cells in the glands become damaged or changed, producing mutations that affect normal cell growth and division. The abnormal cells then replicate, causing cancer. If undetected, the cancer can spread beyond the salivary glands and move to other parts of the body.

Cancers affecting the salivary glands are rare, with approximately 690 new cases in the UK each year. They can occur at any age, but are more common in people over 50. The precise causes of salivary gland cancer are unknown, but several risk factors have been identified, including smoking tobacco, a family history of having the cancer and previous skin cancer. You can find out more about risk factors here.

Symptoms of salivary gland cancer

The symptoms of salivary gland cancer can also indicate other conditions. These symptoms are often fairly noticeable and include:

  • Swelling on the side of the face, just in front of the ears
  • swelling under the jawbone
  • Numbness and drooping on one side of the face (facial palsy)

If you have been experiencing any of these symptoms for more than a few days, or if you have any concerns about similar symptoms, it is essential that you see your doctor at once.

Diagnosis of salivary gland cancer

If you’re referred to CCL for diagnosis, your consultant or oncologist will advise you on which tests are relevant to your individual symptoms. As the symptoms of salivary gland cancer can also indicate a variety of other conditions, there are numerous tests to obtain an accurate diagnosis. These include:

  • A Computerised Tomography scan, which shows a 3D image of the area being looked at
  • A Magnetic Resonance Imaging scan, a procedure that uses radio waves and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body
  • A biopsy, where cell samples are taken for examination for signs of cancer

Treatment of salivary gland cancer

Patients with salivary gland cancer are treated by a specialist multidisciplinary team. This team works together to create a treatment plan to suit the individual needs of the patient.

Salivary gland cancers can start in various cells within the salivary glands and may be slow or fast-growing. The type of treatment you have will depend on a number of things, including the position of the cancer, the exact type of cancer, and your general health. The following treatments may be used alone or in combination:

  • Surgery to remove the salivary glands, and potentially some of the nearby lymph nodes depending on the stage of the cancer
  • Radiotherapy, where high-energy rays are used to destroy the cancer cells
  • Chemotherapy, where chemical agents destroy the cancer cells and prevent them from spreading to different areas.