Salivary Gland Cancer

About the Condition

Salivary gland cancer occurs when the genetic material of cells in the glands become damaged or changed, producing mutations that affect normal cell growth and division. The abnormal cells then replicate, causing cancer. If undetected, the cancer can spread beyond the salivary glands and move to other parts of the body.

Cancers affecting the salivary glands are rare, with approximately 690 new cases in the UK each year*. They can occur at any age, but are more common in people over 50*. There are different types of salivary gland cancer, depending on the type of cell that has become cancerous.

The precise causes of salivary gland cancer are unknown, but several risk factors have been identified, including:

  • Age – your risk of getting salivary gland cancer increases as you get older. Most people who develop it are in their 50s or 60s
  • Being exposed to radiation – previous radiotherapy treatments to the head and neck, or exposure to radioactive substances through work, can cause an increased risk of developing salivary gland cancer
  • Previous skin cancer – incidents of squamous cell skin cancer in the past can mean that you have a slightly increased risk of cancer of the salivary glands
  • Smoking tobacco can increase the risk of developing any type of cancer
  • Family history – If someone else in your family has had salivary gland cancer, your chances of getting it yourself are increased
  • A history of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) – having this particular virus could raise your chances of developing salivary gland cancer


The symptoms of salivary gland cancer can also indicate other conditions. These symptoms are often fairly noticeable and include:

  • a swelling on the side of the face, just in front of the ears
  • a swelling under the jawbone
  • numbness and drooping on one side of the face (facial palsy)

If you have been experiencing any of these symptoms for more than a few days, or if you have any concerns about similar symptoms, it is essential that you see your doctor at once, as your chances of recovery are much higher if your cancer is diagnosed early.


If you’re referred to CCL for diagnosis, your consultant or oncologist will advise you on which tests are relevant to your individual symptoms. As the symptoms of salivary gland cancer can also indicate a variety of other conditions, there are numerous tests to obtain an accurate diagnosis. These include:

  • A Computerised Tomography (CT) scan, which shows a 3D image of the area being looked at
  • A Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan, which is a procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body
  • A biopsy, where cell samples are taken for examination for signs of cancer


At CCL, patients with salivary gland cancer are treated by a team of different specialists, called a Multi-Disciplinary Team, or MDT. This team works together to create a treatment plan to suit the individual needs of the patient. Salivary gland cancers can start in various cells within the salivary glands and may be slow or fast-growing. The type of treatment you have will depend on a number of things, including the position of the cancer, the exact type of cancer, and your general health. The following treatments may be used alone or in combination:

  • Surgery to remove the salivary glands, and potentially some of the nearby lymph nodes depending on the stage of the cancer
  • Radiotherapy, which is where high-energy rays are used to destroy the cancer cells
  • Chemotherapy, which involves the use of chemical agents which are toxic to cancer cells, destroying them and preventing them from spreading to different areas. This can be given by injection or in tablet form

Support Services

Cancer doesn’t just leave a physical impact on an individual, it can have a huge emotional effect as well. Cancer and its treatment can be overwhelming, causing a wide variety of emotions, and it is important to remember that there is no right or wrong response. Reactions vary hugely from person to person, and most people find that it becomes easier to cope when they’re given additional support, so that’s what we do.

At CCL we provide support that caters to both the physical and emotional needs of the patient, before, during and after treatment. We offer a wide range of services for patients, as well as their loved ones, designed to make a very difficult time as easy as possible, and to give our patients the best treatment and support possible.

Treatment for salivary gland can leave you with difficulties swallowing. We understand that this can be extremely frustrating and distressing, and so at CCL we have specialist therapists on hand to help you cope with any changes you may be experiencing.