A variety of tumors can grow in the salivary glands of the head and neck. These tumors are more commonly benign, however they need to be approached with the same caution as cancers arising from the glands.
What is Salivary Glands Cancer?
Cancer of the salivary glands is a disease in which cancer (malignant) cells are found in the tissues of the salivary glands. The salivary glands make saliva, the fluid that is released into the mouth to keep it moist and to help dissolve food.
Major clusters of salivary glands are found below the tongue, on the sides of the face just in front of the ears, and under the jawbone. Smaller clusters of salivary glands are found in other parts of the upper digestive tract. The smaller glands are called the minor salivary glands.
Many growths in the salivary glands do not spread to other tissues and are not cancer. These tumors are called “benign” tumors and are not usually treated the same as cancer.
Salivary duct stones may present as a “benign” salivary tumor. We are equipped to remove these stones using a small camera that enter the duct and extract the stone (sialoendoscopy).
Prognosis of Cancer of the Salivary Glands
The chance of recovery (prognosis) depends on where the cancer is in the salivary glands, whether the cancer is just in the area where it started or has spread to other tissues (the stage), how the cancer cells look under a microscope (the grade), and the patient’s general state of health.
A doctor should be seen if there is a swelling under the chin or around the jawbone, the face becomes numb, muscles in the face cannot move, or there is pain that does not go away in the face, chin, or neck.
If there are symptoms, a doctor will examine the throat and neck using a mirror and lights. The doctor may order a special x-ray called a computed tomographic or CT scan, which uses a computer to make a picture of the inside of parts of the body. Another type of scan, called a magnetic resonance imaging or MRI scan, uses magnetic waves to make a picture of the head may also be ordered. If tissue that is not normal is found, the doctor will need to cut out a small piece and look at it under the microscope to see if there are any cancer cells. This is called a biopsy.
Salivary Glands Cancer Staging
Once cancer of the salivary glands is found, more tests will be done to find out if cancer cells have spread to other parts of the body. This is called staging. A doctor needs to know the stage of the disease to plan treatment. Salivary glands cancers are also classified by “grade,” which tells how fast the cancer cells grow, based on how the cells look under a microscope. Low-grade cancers grow more slowly than high-grade cancers.
- Stage I. The cancer is 2 centimeters or less in diameter and has not spread outside the salivary glands.
- Stage II. The cancer is larger than 2 centimeters but not larger than 4 centimeters in diameter and has not spread outside the salivary glands.
Stage III. Any of the following may be true:
- The cancer is larger than 4 centimeters in diameter and has spread into the skin, soft tissue, bone, or nerve around the gland. The cancer may have spread to a single lymph node.
- The cancer is less than 4 centimeters in size, and has spread to a single lymph node.
- Stage IVA. Any of the following may be true:
- The cancer has spread into the skin, soft tissue, bone, or nerve around the salivary gland, may be as large as 6 centimeters, and may have spread to 1 or more lymph nodes, but has not spread to other parts of the body.
- The cancer is any size and has spread to nearby tissue and has spread to a single lymph node on the same side of the neck as the cancer, to lymph nodes on either side of the neck, or to any lymph node.
- Stage IVB. Any of the following may be true:
- The cancer has spread into the bones of the skull and/or surrounded the carotid artery, the main (right and left) artery of the neck which carries blood to the head and brain, and may have spread to 1 or more lymph nodes.
- The cancer is greater than 6 centimeters and may have spread to nearby tissues, and has spread to at least 1 lymph node.
- Stage IVC. The cancer may be of any size and may have spread to nearby tissues and lymph nodes, and has spread to other parts of the body.
There is no way to know for sure if you’re going to get cancer of the salivary glands. Certain factors can make you more likely than someone else to get it. These are called risk factors. However, just because you have one or more risk factors doesn’t mean you will get salivary glands cancer. In fact, you can have all the risk factors and still not get it. Or you can have no known risk factors and get it.
Source: Stanford Medicine Cancer Institute