Key Points about Salivary Gland Cancer

  • Salivary gland cancer is a rare type of cancer that begins in the glands that produce saliva.
  • Doctors use imaging tests, biopsy and physical exams to diagnose salivary gland cancer.
  • Treatment for salivary gland cancer may involve surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.


Salivary gland cancer occurs when abnormal cells begin to grow out of control in the mouth's salivary glands. Your salivary glands are located around your jaw, in your lips, inside your cheeks and throughout the mouth and throat. In general, salivary gland cancer is a fairly rare type of cancer.

Salivary gland cancer causes 

A mutation (change) that occurs in the DNA of the cells of the salivary glands causes salivary gland cancer.

Salivary gland cancer risk factors

The following factors may increase your risk for developing salivary gland cancer:

  • Being exposed to certain chemicals used in rubber manufacturing, asbestos mining and plumbing 
  • Being older
  • Having undergone radiation therapy for cancer treatment

Salivary gland cancer symptoms

Signs and symptoms of salivary gland cancer can include:

  • Difficulty opening your mouth all the way
  • Lump or swelling near your jaw, in your mouth or on your neck that you can feel
  • Muscle weakness on one side of the face
  • Numbness in your face
  • Ongoing pain in the mouth or throat
  • Trouble swallowing

Salivary gland cancer diagnosis

Your oncologist may use one or more of the following tests to diagnose this condition:

  • Physical exam - your doctor will perform a complete physical exam, including asking questions about your health history, symptoms and related risk factors.
  • Biopsy - in this test, your doctor removes a biopsy (small tissue sample) from your salivary glands. This sample is sent to the laboratory, where a specialist closely checks the biopsy for abnormalities.
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan - your doctor may order a CT scan of your head and throat. This specialized imaging test uses a series of X-ray images to create detailed images of the inside of your body.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) - this test uses strong magnets to create detailed images of the inside of your body. Your doctor uses these images to get a closer look at your head and throat.

Salivary gland cancer treatment

Depending on your personal health history, the extent of your salivary gland cancer and other factors, your oncologist may recommend one or more of the following treatment options:

  • Surgery - the most common first course of treatment for salivary gland cancer is surgery to remove part or all of the affected salivary gland. If the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, your surgeon will also remove those. Depending on the extent of your surgical procedure, you may also need to undergo reconstructive surgery.
  • Chemotherapy - this treatment involves the use of medications to destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs can be delivered via a pill taken orally (by mouth) or an intravenous, or IV, liquid (injected into a vein). You may need to undergo chemotherapy after you have surgery.
  • Radiation therapy - this treatment uses high-powered energy beams to destroy cancerous cells. You may need to undergo radiation therapy to destroy any cancerous cells that couldn’t be removed surgically.

When should I seek care?

If you experience any of these symptoms, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor may suggest seeing an oncologist for more specialized treatment.

Find a cancer specialist near you

Bon Secours locations that can treat you