Salivary glands are in the back of the mouth and make saliva that helps the body digest food. The major glands are parotid glands (along both sides of the face), submandibular glands (below the jaw bone), and sublingual glands (under the tongue).
Salivary gland tumors are rare abnormal growths in these glands. They may be benign or malignant (cancerous). In the parotid gland, 80% of tumors are benign; in the minor salivary glands, 80% of tumors are malignant.
The cause is unknown. They aren’t contagious or passed on from one generation to the next.
A lump or mass is the usual first sign. Salivary gland cancers tend to spread by invading nearby tissue. Local spread of parotid tumors may involve the facial nerve. This tumor can lead to paralysis in the face, with facial droop and inability to close the eye on the affected side. Other salivary gland cancers spread into muscles at the floor of the mouth and base of the skull, and to local lymph glands (nodes). Facial pain, ear pain, headache, and swollen lymph glands result.
Advanced cancer can spread by blood to lungs and bones.
The health care provider uses computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and physical examination to diagnose the tumor. The only sure way to confirm the diagnosis is to biopsy the mass and check the tissue for cancer cells with a microscope.
Salivary gland tumors can be cured if found and removed before they spread. Treatment is removal of the entire gland and nearby structures and lymph glands, if these are involved. Complications of surgery include cutting important nerves, such as the facial nerve and the nerve that goes to the tongue.
Radiation therapy can be used for advanced inoperable tumors or tumors that return. Complications may be dry, red, itchy skin; loss of ability to produce saliva, which causes dry mouth, sore throat, and trouble swallowing; loss of facial hair growth; and loss of taste.
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