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Salivary Gland Cancer: Don’t Ignore These Symptoms

About salivary gland cancer

Salivary gland cancer is 1 of the 5 main types of cancer in the head and neck region, a grouping called head and neck cancer. Cancer begins when healthy cells change and grow out of control, forming a mass of tissue called a tumor. A tumor can be cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can grow and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor means the tumor can grow but will not spread.

Both benign and cancerous tumors can begin in any of the major or minor salivary glands. Most of the tumors (80%) that develop in the parotid gland, and about half of the tumors in the submandibular gland, are benign. Sublingual gland tumors are frequently cancerous. Most cancerous tumors of this type begin in the parotid gland or in the submandibular glands.

There are many subtypes of salivary gland tumors. The classification of subtype depends on the type of cell where the tumor started and an evaluation of tumor cells under a microscope.

This section covers primary salivary gland cancer, which is cancer that begins in the salivary glands. Sometimes another type of cancer, usually melanoma or other types of skin cancers, can spread to the salivary glands or to the nearby lymph nodes located inside and surrounding the parotid gland and next to the submandibular gland. Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped organs that fight infection. For more information about cancer

Salivary Gland Cancer: Risk Factors

A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s chance of developing cancer. Although risk factors often influence the development of cancer, most do not directly cause cancer. Some people with several risk factors never develop cancer, while others with no known risk factors do. Knowing your risk factors and talking about them with your doctor may help you make more informed lifestyle and health care choices.

The cause(s) of most salivary gland cancers are unknown, but the following factors may raise a person’s risk of developing salivary gland cancer:

  • Age. About 2 out of every 3 salivary gland cancers are found in people 55 and older, with an average age of 64.
  • Radiation exposure. Radiation therapy to the head or neck for another medical reason may increase the risk of developing salivary gland cancer.
  • Radioactive substance exposure. In some reports, exposure to certain radioactive substances has been linked to an increased risk of salivary gland cancer. Other reports suggest that there has not been enough evidence to support this. Talk with your doctor for more information.
  • Environmental/occupational exposure. Exposure to sawdust and chemicals used in the leather industry, pesticides, and some industrial solvents may increase the risk of a type of salivary gland cancer that occurs in the nose and sinuses.

Researchers continue to look into what factors cause this type of cancer. Other possible risk factors that doctors are investigating, but have not proven, include exposure to certain metals (nickel alloy dust) or minerals (silica dust), a diet low in vegetables and high in animal fats, and exposure to hair dye or hairspray. Talk with your doctor for more information about your personal risk of cancer and how you may be able to lower your risk.

Treatment overview

Many salivary gland cancers can often be cured, especially if found early. Although curing the cancer is the primary goal of treatment, preserving the function of the nearby nerves, organs, and tissues is also very important. When doctors plan treatment, they consider how treatment might affect a person’s quality of life, including how a person feels, looks, talks, eats, and breathes.

In cancer care, different types of doctors often work together to create a person’s overall treatment plan that combines different types of treatments. This is called a multidisciplinary team. An evaluation should be done by individual head-and-neck specialists before any treatment begins. The team may include these specialists:

  • Medical oncologist: a doctor who specializes in treating cancer with medication
  • Radiation oncologist: a doctor who specializes in giving radiation therapy to treat cancer
  • Surgical oncologist: a doctor who specializes in treating cancer using surgery
  • Maxillofacial prosthodontist: a specialist who performs restorative surgery in the head and neck areas
  • Otolaryngologist: a doctor who specializes in the ear, nose, and throat
  • Oncologic dentist or oral oncologist: dentists experienced in caring for people with head and neck cancer
  • Physical therapist: a health professional who addresses functional challenges that may develop as a result of cancer and cancer treatment
  • Speech pathologist: a specialist who helps people use muscles in the mouth and throat
  • Mental health providers: health professionals who diagnose and treat mental health problems, such as a psychiatrist or a psychologist.
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