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What Are Salivary Gland Tumors?

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.

What Causes Salivary Gland Tumors?

The cause is unknown. They aren’t contagious or passed on from one generation to the next.

What Are the Symptoms of Salivary Gland Tumors?

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.

How Are Salivary Gland Tumors Diagnosed?

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.

How Are Salivary Gland Tumors Treated?

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.

DOs and DON’Ts in Managing Salivary Gland Tumors:

  • DO look for an experienced surgeon who specializes in tumors of the head and neck.
  • DO understand that good nutrition is important. Pain, loss of saliva, and loss of taste can make you lose weight. You may need nutritional supplements and lots of fluids.
  • DO remember to keep all health care provider appointments to watch for side effects or cancer that may return.
  • DO remember that the earlier the cancer is found, the better the prognosis. The 10-year survival rate is 90% for very small tumors with no spread, but only 25% for larger tumors with spread to a lymph gland.
  • DO call your health care provider if you find a lump in your head or neck or have facial or ear pain.
  • DO call your health care provider if you suddenly have facial droop and can’t close your eye on the same side.
  • DO call your health care provider if you need emotional support.
  • DON’T ignore lumps in your mouth, cheek, or neck.
  • DON’T ignore swollen lymph glands.

Contact the following source:

  • National Cancer Institute
    Tel: (800) 422-6237 (800-4-CANCER)
  • American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery
    Tel: (703) 836-4444

Copyright © 2016 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc.

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