Youth Cancer

Cancer of the Salivary Gland

Salivary glands make saliva (spit) in the mouth. Saliva moistens the mouth and helps food to slide down into the stomach.


There are 4 main glands:

  • Sublingual glands: Underneath the tongue
  • Parotid glands: At the sides of the mouth just in front of the ears
  • Submandibular glands: Under the jawbone (mandible)
  • Minor salivary glands: Around the mouth

Salivary gland cancers are most commonly found in people over 50.


What causes cancer of the salivary gland?

The causes of salivary gland cancers are unknown.


What are the symptoms?

Common symptoms of cancer of the salivary gland are:

  • Unexplained swelling on side of the face
  • Numbness of the face
  • Drooping of the face (palsy)

TIP: If you have any of these symptoms you should have them checked by your doctor - but remember, they are common to many illnesses other than salivary gland cancer.


How is it diagnosed?

After visiting a GP a referral will probably be made to a hospital for some tests. These may include:

If the results of the test show salivary gland cancer, another referral will be made to a doctor who specialises in its treatment.


How is it treated?

A team of doctors and other staff at hospital will plan treatment. It will depend on the size of the tumour and where it is.

Treatment may be undertaken by an oncologist (a doctor who specialises in treating cancer with chemotherapy) a orthopaedic surgeon (a surgeon who specialises in bones) and a radiologist (a doctor who specialises in treating cancer with radiation).

Treatment may involve:

  • Surgery
  • Radiotherapy
  • Chemotherapy

Most people have chemotherapy to shrink to size of the tumour and to get rid of any cancer cells around the body. This is usually followed with surgery to remove the tumour. More chemotherapy and radiotherapy usually follows.


Surgery for salivary gland cancer

The aim of surgery is to remove the tumour. Surgery may be used to remove the salivary gland. The surgeon may also remove the lymph nodes (neck dissection) in an effort to reduce the risk of the cancer spreading and returning.

For more information go to our surgery fact sheet.


Radiotherapy for salivary gland cancer

Radiotherapy treats cancer by using high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells, while doing as little harm as possible to normal tissue. Radiotherapy may cause the salivary glands to dry up and so mouth cancer and frequent trips to the dentist are required.

For more information check out our radiotherapy fact sheet.


Chemotherapy for salivary gland cancer

Chemotherapy is not often used in the treatment of salivary gland cancer.

For more information go to our chemotherapy fact sheet.