Salivary Gland Cancer

About the salivary glands

The salivary glands contain tissues that produce saliva. Saliva is important to the body because it:

  • Helps keep the mouth moist

  • Contains enzymes that begin breaking down food

  • Helps prevent infections of the mouth and throat

There are clusters of salivary glands in several places in the head and neck. Doctors often refer to three pairs of salivary glands as the major salivary glands.

  • Parotid glands. These are the largest salivary glands. They are located on either side of the face in front of the ears.

  • Submandibular glands. These are found under the jawbone.

  • Sublingual glands. These are found in the bottom of the mouth under the tongue.

There are also smaller clusters of salivary glands, called minor salivary glands. These include salivary glands in:

  • The area of the upper jaw along the inside of the teeth and the soft palate

  • Parts of the tissue that lines the upper digestive tract, known as the mucosa

  • The windpipe

About salivary gland cancer

Salivary gland cancer is one of the five main types of cancer in the head and neck region, a grouping called head and neck cancer. Cancer begins when healthy cells change and grow uncontrollably, forming a mass of tissue called a tumor. A tumor can be cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can grow and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor means the tumor can grow but will not spread.

Both benign and cancerous tumors can begin in any of the major or minor salivary glands. Most of the tumors (80%) that develop in the parotid gland, and about half of the tumors in the submandibular gland, are benign. Sublingual gland tumors are almost always cancerous. Most cancerous tumors of this type begin in the parotid gland or in the submandibular glands.

There are many subtypes of salivary gland tumors, depending on the type of cell where it started and an evaluation of tumor cells under a microscope. This is explained in more detail in the Subtypes section.

This section covers primary salivary gland cancer, which is cancer that begins in the salivary glands. Sometimes another type of cancer, most commonly melanoma or another type of skin cancer, can spread to the salivary glands or to the nearby lymph nodes located inside and surrounding the parotid gland and next to the submandibular gland. Lymph nodes are tiny, bean-shaped organs that fight infection. For more information about cancer that started in another part of the body and then spread to the salivary glands, please see Cancer.Net’s guide for that type of cancer.