Salivary Gland Cancer: What You Need to Know

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Cancer is a scary word, and is a major concern for many people. While all cancer is something to take seriously, salivary gland cancer is actually very rare, accounting for less than 1 percent of cancers in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. Learn about this disease, which can affect both the major and minor salivary glands, below.

The Salivary Glands

According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, there are three major salivary glands: the parotid, the submandibular and the sublingual. The parotid is on the side of the face in front of the ears, while the submandibular is on the side of the mouth by the jawbone and sublingual are below the tongue. The parotid is the most common site for salivary gland cancer, explains the Facial Palsy UK. The facial nerve is in direct proximity to the parotid gland, so care of this nerve becomes important during the treatment of cancer because damage to the nerve could lead to facial palsy. Cancer cells can also appear in the minor salivary glands elsewhere in the mouth, such as the tongue, lips and the inner cheek.

Risk Factors and Symptoms

Though salivary gland cancer is rare, there are certain risk factors that may make some people more susceptible. According to the American Cancer Society, the frequency of this cancer increases as people age, and is also more common in men than women. If other medical treatments have exposed your head or neck to radiation, you may also have an increased risk for this cancer.

The symptoms of salivary gland cancer are usually a gradual swelling or lump in the area of your jaw and neck, explains the Mayo Clinic. You may experience a persistent pain in that area as well. Therefore, most enlargements require investigation. You may also experience numbness, weakness on one side of your face or trouble swallowing or opening your mouth widely.

Cancer Diagnosis

The initial evaluation may involve a needle biopsy to rule out the presence of malignant cells, as well as a physical exam. Another step is an image test like a CT scan, X-ray or MRI, to evaluate the size of the tumor. Sometimes, surgery is required if a biopsy isn't conclusive. A surgeon, pathologist and radiologist will all collaborate on the diagnostic workup and determine a course of treatment.

Salivary Gland Cancer Treatment

The primary treatment for salivary gland cancer is total or partial removal of the tumor site and any associated structures, according to a report published. Adjacent lymph nodes could also be removed and evaluated. Radiation therapy may be required in addition to the surgery to ensure that no cancer cells are left. Chemotherapy may not be an effective treatment at this time, but new approaches are being explored.

If you notice any changes in your mouth, or have concerns about your oral health, it's best to talk to your dentist. He or she can perform an oral cancer screening at your semi-annual visits, in addition to helping you maintain a consistent oral health routine at home with products . Your dental team is your greatest ally for a healthy mouth and smile!

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