There are three sets of major salivary glands located in the floor of the mouth and near the jawbone. The parotid gland is the largest salivary gland and is located in the region of the cheek just in front of the ear. Other major salivary glands include the submandibular and sublingual glands located below the jaw bone and under the tongue, respectively.
Tumors can develop in all three major salivary glands — most commonly, in the parotid. In addition, there are thousands of minor salivary glands located in the lining of the mouth and throat. While most salivary tumors are benign, some can be malignant and require further work-up.
Risk Factors for Salivary Gland Tumors
- Older age
- Prior radiation therapy to head and neck
- Workplace/environmental exposures
- Certain viruses such as HIV and the Epstein-Barr virus
- A painless lump or swelling near your jaw or in your mouth
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
- Muscle weakness of the face
- Trouble opening your mouth or swallowing
As part of the initial visit, the following tests may be used detect, diagnosis and stage a salivary gland cancer.
- Physical exam: Examining for any abnormalities of the face, neck or mouth
- Imaging: This may include ultrasound, CT scan, MRI and/or a PET scan
- Biopsy: Sampling of tissue to be viewed under a microscope
- Endoscopy: Rarely, endoscopy may be used to see areas difficult to assess on routine exam
Even though most tumors of the salivary glands are not cancerous, surgical removal may be recommended. Meticulous surgical expertise is needed to avoid nerve damage, especially with parotid gland tumors, since they are often closely entwined with the facial nerve. Our surgeons have advanced training and experience treating even the most complicated cases.
If the tumor is malignant, most patients will be recommended for surgery and often radiation therapy. Use of chemotherapy is not standard, but is considered on a case-by-case basis. Knowledge of the disease and incorporation of advanced imaging into the radiation therapy planning process allows our team to precisely target areas at risk while limiting side effects.
As a busy referral center for complex cases, we have the requisite skills and experience necessary to provide patients with optimal cancer outcomes. Because salivary gland tumors often require a patient to see multiple specialists, we provide a cohesive, multidisciplinary team-based approach to treatment.
We have a collaborative team of highly skilled specialists with experience in treating patients who have salivary gland tumors. Members of your treatment team may include:
- Otolaryngologists, including head and neck oncologic surgeons
- Radiation oncologists
- Medical oncologists
- Oculoplastic, facial and reconstructive surgeons
If needed, a variety of techniques and rehabilitation options help patients recover with excellent functional and cosmetic outcomes. Additionally, patients have access to the complete menu of support resources.
Salivary Gland Cancer - Video FAQ
Joseph Zenga, MD, head and neck surgical oncologist, describes what salivary gland cancer is and where it can develop in the head and neck.
Salivary gland cancer is a cancer that starts in a saliva gland in the head and neck. There are a number of saliva glands in the head and neck. There are large ones that exist behind and underneath the jawbone, and then many salivary glands that exist within the mucous membranes of the mouth.
Salivary gland cancers can start in any of these locations. The prognosis and treatment of these cancers completely depends on where they are located, how large they are and what they present with in terms of symptoms.
Joseph Zenga, MD, head and neck surgical oncologist, explains the treatment process for salivary gland cancer.
Salivary gland cancer treatment is largely a surgical process. Salivary gland cancers are typically removed surgically first. Then — depending on what type of cancer it is, how large it is and other features of the pathology — we will determine whether the patient gets radiation after surgery.
The risks and the ultimate outcomes of salivary gland cancer treatment completely depend on where it is located. The parotid gland is a salivary gland located behind the jawbone. If it is in that area, the nerve that controls your face and facial movements runs right through the middle of that gland. We have the ability and expertise and technology to go and identify that nerve, keep it safe and deliver these cancers out from around the nerve branches. As long as the cancers are not invading those nerve branches, we are able to protect and preserve those branches, and the facial function is typically normal after surgery.
Joseph Zenga, MD, head and neck surgical oncologist, explains what determines the survival rate for salivary gland cancer.
The survival rate for salivary gland cancer completely depends on what type of cancer it is and what stage of cancer it is. The early salivary gland cancers have great prognosis and, in many situations, all you need is surgery to safely and successfully remove that cancer and that is a curative treatment.
In cancers that are more advanced or a type that is a bit more aggressive, they may need a surgical removal followed by radiation. For the vast majority of cancers of the saliva glands, treatment is curative. And in only a few situations, does the cancer spread throughout the body.
Virtual Visits Are Available
Safe and convenient virtual visits by video let you get the care you need via a mobile device, tablet or computer wherever you are. We’ll gather your medical records for you and get our experts’ input so we can offer treatment options without an in-person visit. To schedule a virtual visit, call 1-866-680-0505.
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Froedtert Hospital is recognized by U.S. News & World Report as high performing in three adult specialties and 16 procedures and conditions, including cancer.