In this section: Salivary Gland Cancer

salivary gland CANCER 

What is 'Salivary Gland Cancer''? Most Salivary Gland Cancers are found in the parotid glands. The parotid glands contain glands of the immune system (lymph nodes). If this is not the cancer type you're looking for, please explore the information about other types of Throat Cancers or other types of Head and Neck Cancers.

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1. What is Salivary Gland Cancer?

Cancer occurs when cells become abnormal, grow uncontrollably and have the potential to spread to other parts of the body. These cells build up to form a mass (or lump). 

Most salivary gland tumours are not life threatening (malignant) and are called benign tumours. Some benign tumours can become malignant over time.

Most Salivary Gland Cancers are found in the parotid glands. The parotid glands contain glands of the immune system (lymph nodes).

Cancer of the parotid glands may either start:

  • in the salivary gland tissue (called a primary parotid cancer)

  • in the skin and then spread to the lymph nodes in the parotid glands (called a secondary or metastatic cancer).

A small number of Salivary Gland Cancers start in the submandibular, sublingual and minor salivary glands lining the mouth and throat.

There are many different types of primary Salivary Gland Cancer. Each of these cancer types behave differently. Some high-grade salivary tumours spread along nerves  orto lymph nodes and to other parts of the body. Low-grade tumours are less likely to spread.

Watch a 3D video explainer about Salivary Gland Cancer:

2. What are the salivary glands?

The salivary glands make spit (saliva) and releases it into the mouth to keep the mouth and throat moist, and help with swallowing and digesting food.

There are major (large) and minor (small) salivary glands. There are three pairs of major salivary glands: the Parotid Gland, Submandibular glands and Sublingual glands.

Parotid Gland

The parotid glands are found just in front of the ears and behind the jaw. They move saliva into the mouth through a tube called the parotid duct. This tube opens on the inside of the cheek, near the upper molar teeth. The nerve that controls the facial muscles (called the facial nerve), runs through the parotid gland. This nerve makes you smile, frown, close your eyes and raise your eyebrows.

The parotid gland is the largest salivary gland and where most Salivary Gland Cancers occur.

The parotid glands also contain lymph nodes (bean shaped glands that are part of the immune system’s defence against infections). Sometimes skin cancers, can spread to the lymph nodes inside the parotid glands. Most parotid gland tumours are not cancers and are called benign tumours.

Submandibular and Sublingual Glands

The submandibular glands lie under the jawbone, one on each side. They release saliva into the mouth through a duct (tube) that opens in the floor of the mouth, under the tip of the tongue. Three important nerves are found next to these glands –the hypoglossal nerve, lingual nerve and marginal branch of the facial nerve. These nerves give movement, feeling and taste to the tongue and move the lower lip. Tumours of the submandibular gland can be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer). 
The sublingual glands lie under the tongue, one on each side. They release saliva into the submandibular duct and are near the lingual nerves which give feeling and taste to the front of the tongue. The sublingual glands are the smallest of the major salivary glands and rarely develop tumours, but tend to be malignant (cancer) when they do develop.

Minor Salivary Glands

There are hundreds of minor salivary glands throughout the mouth and throat. They can be found inside the mouth, just under the surface including the lips, cheeks and top of the mouth (soft palate). The minor salivary glands can also develop tumours, which can be benign or malignant. 

Diagram of the salivary glands and surrounding areas:


3. What causes Salivary Gland Cancer?

Doctors often can’t explain why a person gets cancer. However, factors that may increase the risk of Salivary Gland Cancer include:

  • Age - most Salivary Gland Cancers occur in people aged over 50 years

  • Exposure of the head and neck to radiation therapy

  • Autoimmune diseases – these can lead to a type of cancer in the salivary glands called lymphoma

  • Skin cancers can spread to lymph nodes in the salivary glands

Other factors, such as using mobile phones and exposure to industrial chemicals, have not been proven to increase the risk of Salivary Gland Cancer.

  1. Head and Neck Cancer Australia Resources 
  2. External Links to other Head and Neck Cancer Resources