Risk factors for salivary gland cancer

A risk factor is something that increases the risk of developing cancer. It could be a behaviour, substance or condition. Most cancers are the result of many risk factors. But sometimes salivary gland cancer develops in people who don’t have any of the risk factors described below.

Salivary gland cancer can occur at almost any age, but most people who develop salivary gland cancer are older than 50. Slightly more men than women develop this disease. There is a high rate of salivary gland cancer in Canadian Inuit.

The following are risk factors for salivary gland cancer. Most of the risk factors are not modifiable. This means that you can’t change them. Until we learn more about these risk factors, there are no specific ways you can reduce your risk.

Risk factors are generally listed in order from most to least important. But in most cases, it is impossible to rank them with absolute certainty.

Risk factors

There is convincing evidence that exposure to radiation increases your risk for salivary gland cancer. The risk is related to how much radiation someone is exposed to.

People who had radiation therapy to the head or neck and atomic bomb survivors have the highest risk.

People who had many full-mouth dental x-rays also have a high risk for salivary gland cancer. This is especially true for people who had these x-rays before the 1960s when the doses of radiation were much higher.

Possible risk factors

The following factors have been linked with salivary gland cancer, but there is not enough evidence to show for sure that they are risk factors. More research is needed to clarify the role of these factors for salivary gland cancer.

  • treatment with iodine 131 (I-131) for thyroid cancer
  • Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection
  • smoking

Questions to ask your healthcare team

To make the decisions that are right for you, ask your healthcare team questions about risks.

Expert review and references

  • Friborg JT and Melbye M . Cancer patterns in Inuit populations. Lancet Oncology. Elsevier; 2008.
  • Hashibe M, Sturgis EM, Ferlay J, & Winn DM . Oral cavity, oropharynx, lip and salivary glands. Thun MJ (ed.). Schottenfeld and Fraumeni Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention. 4th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2018: 29: 543-577.
  • International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Volume 100D: Radiation: A Review of Human Carcinogens. 2011: http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Monographs/vol100D/mono100D.pdf.
  • International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Volume 100E: Personal Habits and Indoor Combustions. 2012: http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Monographs/vol100E/mono100E.pdf.
  • Tuluc M, Bar-Ad V, Cognetti D, Johnson J, Axelrod R . Uncommon tumors of the oral cavity and adjacent structures. Raghavan D, et al (eds.). Textbook of Uncommon Cancer. 5th ed. Wiley Blackwell; 2017: 10:134–151.

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