• <div class="section1"> Definition

    A salivary gland tumor is an uncontrolled growth of cells that originates in one of the many saliva-producing glands in the mouth.


    The tongue, cheeks, and palate (the hard and soft areas at the roof of the mouth) contain many glands that produce saliva. In saliva there are enzymes, or catalysts, that begin the breakdown (digestion) of food while it is still in the mouth. The glands are called salivary glands because of their function.

    There are three big pairs of salivary glands in addition to many smaller ones. The parotid glands, submandibular glands and sublingual glands are the large, paired salivary glands. The parotids are located inside the cheeks, one below each ear. The submandibular glands are located on the floor of the mouth, with one on the inner side of each part of the lower jaw, or mandible. The sublingual glands are also in the floor of the mouth, but they are under the tongue.

    The parotids are the salivary glands most often affected by tumors. Yet most of the tumors that grow in the parotid glands are benign, or not cancerous. Approximately 8 out of 10 salivary tumors diagnosed are in a parotid gland. One in 10 diagnosed is in a submandibular gland. The remaining 10% are diagnosed in other salivary glands.

    In general, glands more likely to show tumor growth are also glands least likely to show malignant tumor growth. Thus, although tumors of the sublingual glands are rare, almost all of them are malignant. In contrast, about one in four tumors of the parotid glands is malignant.

    Cancers of the salivary glands begin to grow in epithelial cells, or the flat cells that cover body surfaces. Thus, they are called carcinomas, cancers that by definition begin in epithelial cells.


    Cancers in the mouth account for fewer than 2% of all cases of cancer and about 1.5% of cancer deaths. About 7% of all cancers diagnosed in the head and neck region are diagnosed in a salivary gland. Men and women are at equal risk.

    Mortality from salivary gland tumors in the United States is higher among male African Americans below the age of 50 than among older workers of any race or either sex. The reasons for these findings are not clear as of early 2004.

    Causes and symptoms

    When survivors of the 1945 atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima began to develop salivary gland tumors at a high rate, radiation was suspected as a cause. Ionizing radiation, particularly gamma radiation, is a factor that contributes to tumor development. So is radiation therapy. Adults who received radiation therapy for enlarged adenoids or tonsils when they were children are at greater risk for salivary gland tumors.

    Another reported risk factor is an association between wood dust inhalation and adenocarcinoma of the minor salivary glands of the nose and paranasal sinuses. There is also evidence that people infected with herpes viruses may be at greater risk for salivary gland tumors. And individuals infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) have more salivary gland disease in general, and may be at greater risk for salivary gland tumors.

    Although there has been speculation that the electromagnetic fields generated by cell phones increase the risk of salivary gland tumors, a recent study done in Denmark has concluded that the use of cell phones, pagers, and similar devices is not a risk factor.

    There seems to be some link between breast cancer and salivary gland tumors. Women with breast cancer are more likely to be diagnosed with salivary gland tumors. Also linked to salivary gland tumors is alcohol use, exposure to sunlight (ultraviolet radiation) and hair dye use. There is evidence that people infected with herpes viruses may be at greater risk for salivary gland tumors. Individuals infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) have more salivary gland disease in general, and may be at greater risk for salivary gland tumors.

    Symptoms are often absent until the tumor is large or has metastasized (spread to other sites). In many cases, the tumor is first discovered by the patient's dentist. During regular dental examinations, the dentist looks for masses on the palate or under the tongue or in the cheeks, and such checkups are a good way to detect tumors early. Some symptoms are:

    • a lump or mass in the mouth
    • swelling in the face
    • pain in the jaw or the side of the face
    • difficulty swallowing
    • difficulty breathing
    • difficulty speaking


    A tissue sample will be taken for study via a biopsy. Usually an incision is necessary to take the tissue sample. Sometimes it is possible to take a tissue sample with a needle.

    Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) scans are also used to evaluate the tumor. They help determine whether the cancer has spread to sites adjacent to the salivary gland where it is found. MRI offers a good way to examine the tonsils and the back of the tongue, which are soft tissues. CT is tapped as a way of studying the jaw, which is bone.


    To assess the stage of growth of a salivary gland tumor, many features are examined, including how big it is and the type of abnormal cell growth. Analysis of the types of abnormal cell growth in tissue is so specific that many salivary gland tumors are given unique names.

    In stage I cancer the tumor is less than one inch in size and it has not spread. Stage II salivary gland cancers are larger than one inch and smaller than two and one-half inches, but they have not spread. Stage III cancers are smaller than one inch, but they have spread to a lymph node. Stage IV cancers have spread to adjacent sites in the head, which may include the base of the skull and nearby nerves, or they are larger than two and one-half inches and have invaded a lymph node.

    Surgical removal (excision) of the tumor is the most common treatment. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy may be part of the treatment, particularly if the cancer has metastasized, or spread to other sites; chemotherapy of salivary gland cancers, however, does not appear to extend survival or improve the patient's quality of life. Because there are many nerves and blood vessels near the three major pairs of salivary glands, particularly the parotids, the surgery can be quite complicated. A complex surgery is especially true if the tumor has spread.

    A promising form of treatment for patients at high risk of tumor recurrence in the salivary glands near the base of the skull is gamma knife surgery. Used as a booster treatment following standard neutron radiotherapy, gamma knife surgery appears to be well tolerated by the patients and to have minimal side effects.

    Alternative treatment

    Any technique, such as yoga, meditation or biofeedback, that helps a patient cope with anxiety over the condition and discomfort from treatment is useful and should be explored as an option.


    Tumors in small salivary glands that are localized can usually be removed without much difficulty. The outlook for survival once the tumor is removed is very good if it has not metastasized.

    For parotid cancers, the five-year survival rate is more than 85% whether or not a lymph node is involved at diagnosis. Ten-year survival rate is just under 50%.

    Most early stage salivary gland tumors are removed, and they do not return. Those that do return, or recur, are the most troublesome and reduce the chance an individual will remain cancer-free.


    Minimizing intake of beverages containing alcohol may be important. Avoiding unnecessary exposure of the head to radiation and to sunlight may also be considered preventative. Anything that reduces the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease, such as the use of condoms, also may lower the risk of salivary gland cancer.

    Source: The Gale Group. Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, 3rd ed.

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