What is salivary gland cancer?

Most tumours that develop in the salivary glands are non-cancerous (benign).

Salivary gland cancer is rare type of head and neck cancer. It can affect people of any age, but is more common in people aged over 50. It is more common in women than men.

Salivary gland cancers can be made up of different cell types.

We have more information on the salivary glands.

Symptoms of salivary gland cancer

The most common symptom is a swelling on the side of the face, just in front of the ear or under the jawbone. This may be a painless swelling.

If you are worried about salivary gland cancer, we have more information about the signs and symptoms.

Causes of salivary gland cancer

Salivary gland cancer is a rare cancer. The exact causes are not known.

Certain things (risk factors) can increase your risk of developing it. Having a risk factor does not mean you will definitely develop salivary gland cancer. And if you do not have any risk factors, it does not mean you will not get cancer.

Your risk of developing salivary gland cancer may be higher if you have had:

  • radiotherapy for Hodgkin lymphoma
  • radiotherapy to the head and neck area as a child.

Your risk of getting salivary gland cancer increases as you get older.

We have general information about the causes and risk factors of head and neck cancer.

Diagnosis of salivary gland cancer

You usually start by seeing your GP. They will examine your mouth closely.

They will refer you to a hospital specialist if:

  • they think that your symptoms could be caused by cancer
  • they are not sure what the problem is.

The specialist doctor will ask you about your symptoms and general health. They will check your mouth using a small mirror and light. They will also examine the area where the lump is and arrange for you to have some tests.

  • Ultrasound scan

    An ultrasound uses soundwaves to produce a picture of your head or neck on a computer screen. The scan is painless and only takes a few minutes. The doctor will put some gel on to your face or neck and move a small device which produces sound waves over the area.

  • CT scan

    A CT scan takes a series of x-rays, which build up a three-dimensional picture of the inside of your body.

  • MRI scan

    An MRI scan uses magnetism to build up a detailed picture of areas of your body.

  • Fine needle aspiration (FNA)

    An FNA is a simple test that you can have as an outpatient. It is often used to check neck lumps.

Waiting for test results can be a difficult time, we have more information that can help.

Staging and grading of salivary gland cancer

The results of your tests helps your doctors find out more about the size and position of the cancer and whether it has spread. This is called staging.

A doctor decides the grade of the cancer by how the cancer cells look under the microscope. This gives an idea of how quickly the cancer might grow or spread.

Knowing the stage and grade helps your doctors plan the best treatment for you.

Treatment for salivary gland cancer

A team of specialists will meet to discuss the best possible treatment for you. This is called a multidisciplinary team (MDT).

Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse will explain the different treatments and their side effects. They will also talk to you about things to consider when making treatment decisions.

We have more information about

Treatment for salivary gland cancer may include:

  • Surgery

    Surgery is usually the main treatment for salivary gland cancer.

  • Radiotherapy

    Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to destroy the cancer cells. It can be used on its own, or in combination with chemotherapy. This is called chemoradiation.

  • Chemotherapy

    Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer drugs to destroy cancer cells. This is sometimes given to treat salivary gland cancer that has spread or if you cannot have surgery or radiotherapy.

  • Chemoradiation

    Chemoradiation is when you have chemotherapy and radiotherapy together. Chemotherapy can make the cancer cells more sensitive to radiotherapy treatment.

You may have some treatments as part of a clinical trial.

After salivary gland cancer treatment

You have regular follow-up appointments after treatment. These may continue for several years. You may also have regular follow-up appointments with a speech and language therapist (SLT), dietitian, restorative dentist and dental hygienist.

If you have any problems or notice new symptoms between appointments, let your doctor know as soon as possible.

Sex life and fertility

Head and neck cancer and its treatment can sometimes affect your sex life and fertility.

If you are worried about this, it is important to talk with your doctor before you start treatment.

We have more information about:

Late effects

Some side effects that develop during treatment may take a long time to improve, or may sometimes become permanent. These are called long-term effects. Other effects can develop months or even years after treatment has finished. These are known as late effects. We have more information about long-term and late effects of head and neck cancer treatment.

Well-being and recovery

Even if you already have a healthy lifestyle, you may choose to make some positive lifestyle changes after treatment.

Making small changes to the way you live such as eating well and keeping active can improve your health and well-being and help your body recover.

It can be difficult to eat well after treatment for head and neck cancer, but your dietitian can help you.

Your feelings after salivary gland cancer treatment

For some people, it takes several months to recover from treatment. It can be hard to cope if treatment has changed your appearance, voice or how you eat and drink. It is common to feel overwhelmed by different feelings.

There are national support groups that you may find helpful:

  • The Mouth Cancer Foundation

    The Mouth Cancer Foundation gives information and support to people affected by head and neck cancers.

  • Changing Faces

    Changing Faces offers advice and information to anyone who is affected by a change in their appearance.

Macmillan is also here to support you. If you would like to talk, you can:

About our information

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr Chris Alcock, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

Reviewed: 01 October 2018
Reviewed: 01/10/2018
Next review: 01 April 2021
Next review: 01/04/2021

This content is currently being reviewed. New information will be coming soon.