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Salivary Gland Cancer

by Bradley A. Schiff, MD

Cancers of the salivary glands are much less common than noncancerous growths (see Noncancerous growths). The most common salivary gland cancer is mucoepidermoid carcinoma, which can form in a small (minor) salivary gland on the roof of the mouth or as a lump in one of the large (major) salivary glands, either under or behind the lower jaw.

The early growth of salivary gland tumors may or may not be painful. When these tumors do become painful, the pain may be worsened by food, which stimulates the secretion of saliva. If tumors invade nearby nerves, people may have numbness or tingling of part of their face, or trouble moving their face.

Doctors do a biopsy (removal of a tissue specimen for examination under a microscope) of any abnormal salivary gland. If the biopsy shows cancer, doctors then do imaging tests, such as computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to see the extent of the cancer. Because some salivary gland cancers can spread widely, doctors may also do imaging tests of the lungs, liver, bones, and brain.

Most cancers are treated with surgery followed by radiation therapy. Doctors try to avoid damaging the facial nerve during surgery.