Login below, or create an account for free.
Salivary gland cancers are malignancies that develop in the salivary glands in the mouth. Salivary glands are responsible for the production of saliva, which is a fluid that aids in digestion, prevents your mouth from becoming too dry and supports healthy teeth.
In humans, there are three pairs of major salivary glands located behind the jaw: parotid, sublingual and submandibular. The parotid glands are largest, and are found in the cheeks. The main role of the parotid glands is to initiate the first part of digestion. Most salivary gland cancers develop in the parotid salivary glands. The sublingual glands are the smallest and are found on each side of the tongue. These glands produce the least amount of saliva, and are least likely to have a cancer develop in them. The submandibular glands are located on the floor of our mouths on each side, and produce the most saliva. There are also several minor salivary glands found in the lips, cheeks, mouth, and throat.
Salivary gland cancers are more common in males, and are generally found in people over 50 years of age. However, anyone can develop this disease.
There are several different types of salivary gland cancers, that are categorised by the types of cells they develop from.
Mucoepidermoid carcinomas are the most common type of salivary gland cancer, and usually develop in the parotid glands. They develop from mucoepidermoid cells, which are mucus-secreting cells that line the salivary glands. These cancers are often slow growing, can be aggressive and can have a good prognosis when caught early.
Adenoid cystic carcinomas are the second most common type of salivary gland cancer, and usually develop in the sublingual or submandibular glands. They develop from the tissues that line the salivary glands, and are often slow growing. ACC can be aggressive, often have a high recurrence rate, and may not have as good of a prognosis as other salivary gland cancers.
For more information on ACC, please refer to the Rare Cancers Australia Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma page.
Myoepithelial carcinomas are a rare form of salivary gland cancer which usually develop in the parotid glands. They develop from myoepithelial cells, which assist in the facilitating movement of saliva in salivary ducts. While some myoepithelial carcinomas can be aggressive, they can have a good prognosis when caught early.
Acinic cell carcinomas are a rare form of salivary gland cancer that usually develop in the parotid glands. They develop from acinar cells, which are responsible for the secretion of saliva. Acinar cell carcinomas are often slow-growing, and are more common in females. It generally affects people at a younger age than other types of salivary gland cancers.
For more information on acinic cell carcinomas, please refer to the Rare Cancers Australia Acinic Cell Carcinoma page.
Malignant mixed tumours are tumours that have more than one type of cancer cells in them.
Carcinoma ex pleomorphic adenomas are rare salivary gland tumours, and are often found in the parotid glands. They develop from pleomorphic adenomas, which are benign tumours (adenoma) with many different cell types (pleomorphic). Once these tumours become cancerous, they may grow quickly and become aggressive.
Carcinosarcomas are very rare salivary gland tumours that contain a mix of carcinoma (cancer arising from tissues that line organs) cells and sarcoma (cancer arising from bones and/or soft tissue) cells. They can be fast-growing, aggressive, and may not have as good of a prognosis as other types of salivary gland cancer.
Polymorphous adenocarcinomas are rare types of salivary gland cancers that often develop in the sublingual or submandibular glands. They develop from mucus-producing glandular cells (adenocarcinomas) and have various different growth patterns (polymorphous). These cancers are often slow growing, and may have a good prognosis.
These types of salivary gland cancer are very rare:
If salivary gland cancer is detected, it will be staged and graded based on size, metastasis (whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body) and how the cancer cells look under the microscope. Staging and grading helps your doctors determine the best treatment for you.
Cancers can be staged using the TNM staging system:
This system can also be used in combination with a numerical value, from stage 0-IV:
Cancers can also be graded based on the rate of growth and how likely they are to spread:
Once your tumour has been staged and graded, your doctor may recommend genetic testing, which analyses your tumour DNA and can help determine which treatment has the greatest chance of success. They will then discuss the most appropriate treatment option for you.
Treatment is dependent on several factors, including location, stage of disease and overall health.
Treatment options for salivary gland cancer may include:
For more information on the treatment options, please refer to the Rare Cancers Australia Treatment Options page.
While the cause of salivary cancers remains unknown, the following factors may increase your risk of developing the disease:
Not everyone with these risk factors will develop the disease, and some people who have the disease may have none of these risk factors. See your general practitioner (GP) if you are concerned.
Possible signs and symptoms of a salivary gland cancer include:
Not everyone with the symptoms above will have cancer but see your general practitioner (GP) if you are concerned.
If your doctor suspects you have a MASC of the salivary glands, they will order a range of diagnostic tests to confirm the diagnosis, and refer you to a specialist for treatment.
Your doctor will collect your overall medical history, as well as your current symptoms. Following this, they may examine your body to check for any abnormalities.
The doctor will take images of your body using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a computed tomography scan (CT scan), x-ray and/or ultrasound, depending on where it is suspected the cancer is. The doctor may also look at other parts of the body and looks for signs of metastasis. Additionally, a blood test may be taken to assess your overall health and help guide treatment decisions.
An endoscopy is a surgical procedure that involves inserting a long, flexible tube with a light and small camera through your throat, oesophagus and small bowel, in order to examine the lining of the gastrointestinal tract and detect any abnormalities. You will be given a sedative or anaesthetic throughout the procedure. You will be asked to fast for several hours prior to the procedure. An endoscopy is often done as a day surgery. Your doctor will discuss the risks and any possible complications of this procedure prior to the procedure.
Throughout the procedure, your doctor may also perform an endoscopic ultrasound to guide the needle during a biopsy, or to check for signs of cancer metastasis.
If any abnormalities are observed, your doctor will remove a small tissue sample for analysis.
While it is not possible to predict the exact course of the disease, your doctor may be able to give you a general idea based on the rate and depth of tumour growth, susceptibility to treatment, age, overall fitness, and medical history. Generally, early-stage salivary gland cancers have a better prognosis and survival rates. However, if the cancer is advanced and has spread, the prognosis may not be as good and there may be a higher risk of cancer recurrence. It is very important to discuss your individual circumstances with your doctor to better understand your prognosis.
Some references are to overseas websites. There may be references to drugs and clinical trials that are not available here in Australia.
Page last updated: 10/05/2022