Is Salivary Gland Cancer Treatable?

Reviewed on 3/5/2022

Woman holding left hand up to side of neck, which is reddened for illustration
Typically, most types of salivary gland cancer can be cured when it is diagnosed and treated in the early stages. Treatment for salivary gland cancer may include surgery to remove the cancerous tumor, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.

Salivary gland cancer occurs when cells in the salivary glands grow out of control. There are several different salivary glands found inside and near the mouth and a number of types of cancerous and benign (non-cancerous) tumors can form in these glands.

Most types of salivary gland cancer can be cured, especially when it is found in early stages. 

Treatment for salivary gland cancer may include one or more of the following: 

  • Surgery 
    • Recommended for most patients and usually the first line treatment
    • The goal is to remove the as much of the cancerous tumor as possible 
    • Parotid gland surgery
      • Removal of the outside part of the gland (superficial parotidectomy)
      • Removal of the entire gland (total parotidectomy)
    • Submandibular or sublingual gland surgery
      • Removal of the entire gland and sometimes some of the surrounding tissue or bone, and sometimes some nerves
    • Minor salivary gland surgery
      • For salivary gland cancers that occur in the lips, tongue, palate, mouth, throat, voice box (larynx), nose, and sinuses
      • Tumor is removed along with surrounding tissue
    • Neck dissection
      • Surgery to examine all the critical structures in the neck and remove lymph nodes from the neck
      • Performed if the cancer is suspected to have spread, or if there is a high chance of it spreading
    • Reconstructive (plastic) surgery 
  • Radiation therapy 
    • External beam radiation therapy
      • Accelerated hyperfractionated radiation therapy
      • 3D conformal radiation therapy (3D-CRT)
      • Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT)
      • Fast neutron beam radiation
  • Chemotherapy 

What Are Symptoms of Salivary Gland Cancer?

Signs and symptoms of salivary gland cancer can include: 

  • Lump or swelling in the mouth, cheek, jaw, or neck
  • Persistent pain in the mouth, cheek, jaw, ear, or neck 
  • A difference between the size and/or shape of the left and right sides of the face or neck
  • Numbness in part of the face
  • Muscle weakness on one side of the face
  • Difficulty opening the mouth widely
  • Fluid draining from an ear
  • Difficulty swallowing

What Causes Salivary Gland Cancer?

Salivary gland cancer is caused by genetic changes, but the reason for these changes is unknown. 

Risk factors for developing salivary gland cancer include: 

  • Older age
  • Male gender
  • Radiation exposure to the head and neck area for other medical reasons 
  • Workplace exposure to certain radioactive substances 
  • Family history
  • Other possible risk factors 
    • Certain workplace exposures
      • Certain metals (nickel alloy dust) or minerals (silica dust)
      • Work in asbestos mining, plumbing, rubber products manufacturing, and some types of woodworking 
      • Salivary gland cancer is rare so these associations are still being studied
    • Tobacco and alcohol use
      • These factors can increase the risk of other cancers but the link between smoking and alcohol use and salivary gland cancer is not yet proven
    • Diet
      • Diets low in vegetables and high in animal fats may increase the risk of salivary gland cancer, but more research is needed 
    • Cell phone use
      • There may be an increased risk of parotid gland tumors among heavy cell phone users but research is still needed

How Is Salivary Gland Cancer Diagnosed?

Salivary gland cancer is diagnosed with a physical examination and patient history, along with tests such as: 

  • Imaging tests
  • Biopsy
    • Fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy
    • Incisional biopsy
  • Surgical removal of the tumor: provides both enough of a sample for a diagnosis and treats the tumor at the same time 


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Reviewed on 3/5/2022
Image Source: iStock Images