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Diagnosis and Treatment of Salivary Gland Cancer

The salivary glands produce saliva that enters the mouth, keeping it moist and aiding in digestion and fighting infection. The salivary glands are distributed somewhat diffusely in the head and neck around the mouth.

There are three pairs of major salivary glands, the largest of which are the parotid glands which are located just in front of the ears. The next largest major salivary glands are the submandibular glands at the back of the mouth, and the smallest are the sublingual glands under the floor of the mouth.

In addition to these major glands, there are also nearly 1,000 tiny minor salivary glands that are found in the hard palate, soft palate, lips, tongue, pharynx, nasopharynx, larynx, and parapharyngeal space.

Salivary gland cancers can arise from a large variety of different cell types making it an unusually diverse disease.  In addition, for currently unknown reasons, salivary gland tumors are more likely to contain cells that originate from multiple cell types than most other types of cancer. For example, parotid gland tumors are most frequently mucoepidermoid carcinomas, which means they arise from both mucous and epidermoid cells.

According to the American Cancer Society, about 80 percent of salivary gland tumors occur in the parotid glands, 10 - 15 percent of salivary gland tumors occur in the submandibular glands, and the remaining 5 - 10 percent of salivary gland tumors occur in the sublingual and minor salivary glands.

Risk Factors

Previously receiving radiation therapy increases the risk of developing salivary gland cancers. People who are exposed to mustard gas, isopropyl oils, volatile hydrocarbons, or metals like nickel and chromium (which occurs most commonly in the leather tanning, nickel mining and carpentry industries) also have an increased risk of developing salivary gland cancer. Unlike most head and neck cancers, tobacco use is not believed to be a major contributor to the development of salivary gland cancer.

Stanford Expertise

Salivary gland cancer is extremely rare. Therefore, it is important to be seen by a team of physicians who have expertise in treating this specific disease. Depending on the type and stage of the tumors, salivary gland cancers are usually treated with surgery and radiation, and in advanced cases chemotherapy. 

The head and neck cancer specialists at the Cancer Center have experience treating salivary gland cancer, and will provide you with the multidisciplinary, quality, compassionate care that you deserve.

Surgery is the most common form of treatment for salivary gland cancer. In some cases endoscopic surgery may be possible to minimize scarring and damage to surrounding tissues.

Rarely, damage to the facial nerve results from salivary gland surgery, but injury rates are lower with experienced surgeons like those at the Stanford Cancer Center.

Furthermore, if the nerve is damaged, specialists may be able to repair it with a nerve graft.

Radiation therapy is also a mainstay of treatment for salivary gland cancer, but side effects have been problematic in the past.

Today, the Center offers ground breaking radiology technologies such as intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) which allows physicians to radiate tumors in the ethmoid sinuses while reducing harm to closely situated organs like the eyes and brain.

Protecting Your Quality of Life
Your doctors and nurses will take care to minimize and manage treatment side effects like mucositis. If the cancer is advanced, reconstructive plastic surgeons and prosthodontists are integrated into treatment to ensure maximum success in preserving your appearance.

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