Salivary glands are an essential part of your mouth – making saliva to lubricate your mouth and aid in digestion. Most people don’t think about these glands because saliva production is happening automatically throughout the day.
But if something goes wrong with the salivary gland, such as the development of a tumor, then it can start a chain reaction of other problems. These tumors can happen in the salivary gland that produces saliva or in the ducts (tubes) where the glands drain.
What You Need to Know About Salivary Glands
Saliva is produced from salivary glands to maintain the right environment in your mouth and throat. Additionally, this saliva has enzymes that start the food digestion process, as well as antibodies to reduce the risk of infection in the mouth and throat.
Your mouth contains 3 sets of major salivary glands in the facial area:
- Sublingual Salivary Glands: The smallest set of glands, located below and on the sides of the tongue. It isn’t typical for tumors to form in these glands on the floor of the mouth.
- Submandibular Salivary Glands: Located below the jaw and connect to the mouth to produce saliva under the tongue. 10 – 20% of tumors of the salivary gland start here, and about half of those tumors are cancerous.
- Parotid Salivary Glands: The biggest glands are located in front of the ears, where about 70% of salivary gland tumors are found. Usually, tumors in these areas are not cancerous (benign), but this is the most commonplace for cancerous tumors to begin.
Additionally, hundreds of minor salivary glands are located throughout the facial area. These glands are so small that they aren’t visible to the naked eye. Minor salivary glands are located in the lining of the lips, mouth, tongue, nose, cheeks, sinuses, and voice box.
It’s uncommon to develop tumors in the minor salivary glands. But if this occurs, the salivary gland tumors are often on the roof of the mouth, and there is a higher chance of the tumors being cancerous than benign.
Benign Salivary Gland Tumors
Most of the time, tumors in the salivary gland are benign. There is abnormal cell growth in the salivary gland, but since it’s not cancerous, it won’t spread to other body parts.
Types of benign salivary gland tumors include:
- Warthin tumors
- Benign mixed tumors
Surgery is usually the recommendation for benign tumors in the salivary gland. In rare cases, untreated benign tumors can turn cancerous over time.
During the surgical procedure, it’s important for the surgeon to remove the tumor completely. If a portion of the tumor is left, then it could grow back.
Malignant Salivary Gland Tumors
It’s rare for salivary glands to be cancerous. For example, only about 6% of all neck and head cancers involve malignant salivary gland tumors.
Cancerous tumors can start in all types of salivary gland cells. Therefore, the cancer diagnosis is named based on the cell type where cancer develops.
Doctors rate cancerous salivary gland tumors based on the abnormalities of the cells when looking through a microscope. The grade is an indication of how quickly the cancer will spread:
- Grade 1 Salivary Cancers: These are the slowest growing cancers, and the cancer cells have a similar appearance as normal salivary gland cells. The prognosis is good because of the slow growth. This grade is also known as “well-differentiated” or “low grade.”
- Grade 2 Salivary Cancers: The next grade is the middle ground between the lowest and highest grades of salivary gland cancers. It is also known as “moderately differentiated” or “intermediate grade” salivary cancer.
- Grade 3 Salivary Cancers: The fastest-growing type of salivary gland cancer looks very different from normal cells and can spread quickly through the body. Because this type of cancer is fast-moving, the prognosis is not as good as lower-grade cancers. It is also known as “poorly differentiated” or “high grade” salivary gland cancer.
What Causes Salivary Gland Tumors?
Doctors are still looking for answers to understand what causes salivary gland tumors. In addition, salivary gland tumors are more common in older adults.
One known risk factor is skin cancer that spreads to the parotid gland. Also, smoking increases the risk of benign tumors in the salivary glands.
Environmental exposure can also affect a person’s risk of developing salivary gland tumors. For example, radiation exposure from cancer treatments can increase the risk.
Or, exposure to particular workplace substances can increase the likelihood of developing these tumors. For example, people working in manufacturing environments involving rubber, asbestos mining, or plumbing tend to have a higher risk of salivary gland tumors.
Genetic research is continuing to help specialists understand why salivary gland tumors form.
Symptoms of Salivary Gland Tumors
General wellness checks are standard during dental examinations to look for signs of salivary gland tumors. Additionally, ENTs watch for early signs of tumor development.
If you notice any of the following symptoms, then it’s a good idea to schedule an appointment with an ENT to get a diagnosis and treatment plan:
- Swelling or lump near the neck, mouth, or jaw
- Difficulty swallowing
- Numbness develops in a portion of the face
- Pain in the salivary glands
- Muscle weakness on one side of the face
- Difficulty opening your mouth wide
The presence of a lump or swelling is the most common symptom of a salivary gland tumor. But just because you discover a lump doesn’t necessarily mean that you have cancer. Other conditions can also cause the salivary glands to swell, such as a stone or infection in the gland.
Diagnosing Salivary Gland Tumors
When you talk to an ENT about salivary gland tumors, the diagnosis usually involves a 3-part process:
- Examination: The doctor will ask for information about your medical history and symptoms. Then, a physical exam is completed to check the throat, neck, and jaw for swelling or lumps.
- Imaging: Next, imaging tests might be necessary to see the size and position of the tumor. Testing options include CT scans, MRIs, PET, x-ray, or ultrasound.
- Biopsy: Your doctor might want to collect a tissue sample for testing using a core needle biopsy or fine-needle aspiration. The needle draws out a sample of the abnormal cells, which are sent to a lab for analysis.
Surgery for Salivary Gland Tumors
Surgery is usually the best treatment for salivary gland tumors. If doctors determine that the tumor is malignant, then additional cancer treatments might be necessary as well.
During the surgery, the doctor will remove a portion of the salivary gland or the entire gland. Sometimes, it is necessary to remove lymph nodes as well if the tumor is cancerous. These lymph nodes will indicate whether the cancerous cells have moved to other parts of the body.
Depending on the amount of tissue that needs to be removed, the doctor might recommend reconstructive surgery to restore your appearance. This reconstruction is essential so you can speak, breathe, swallow, and chew.
Consult with an Ear, Nose, and Throat Specialist
If you suspect a salivary gland tumor, then don’t delay an appointment with an ENT. At Collin County Ear, Nose, and Throat, we serve patients in the Collin County and Dallas area. Schedule an appointment in Frisco or Plano, TX, at our nearby offices.
Fill out the online form if you want to request an appointment. Then, call us any time for more information: (972) 596-4005.