Supportive care for salivary gland cancer

Supportive care helps people meet the physical, practical, emotional and spiritual challenges of salivary gland cancer. It is an important part of cancer care. There are many programs and services available to help meet the needs and improve the quality of life of people living with cancer and their loved ones, especially after treatment has ended.

Recovering from salivary gland cancer and adjusting to life after treatment is different for each person, depending on the organs and tissues removed during surgery, the type of treatment and many other factors. The end of cancer treatment may bring mixed emotions. Even though treatment has ended, there may be other issues to deal with, such as coping with long-term side effects. If you've been treated for salivary gland cancer you may have the following concerns.

Body image and self–esteem

Body image is how a person sees their own body. How a person feels about themselves is called self-esteem. Salivary gland cancer and its treatments can affect your body image and your self-esteem. Often this is because cancer or cancer treatments may result in body changes, such as:

  • scars
  • skin changes, such as colour changes from radiation therapy
  • changes in to the appearance of your face and neck
  • drooping of your face or lip on one side

Some of these changes can be temporary. Others will last for a long time or be permanent. Talk to your healthcare team if you have concerns about your appearance. Reconstructive surgery may be an option for some people.

For many people, body image and how they think other people see them is closely linked to self-esteem. It may be a real concern for them and can cause considerable distress. They may feel angry or upset, afraid to go out or afraid others will reject them, even if the effects of treatment may not show on the outside of the body.

Find out more about how you can cope with problems of body image and self–esteem.

Dry mouth

Radiation can damage the salivary glands so they don't make enough saliva or the saliva they make is thick or sticky. Your radiation therapy team will take measures to protect the salivary glands from radiation during treatment to lower the risk of dry mouth.

Most people will have a dry mouth during radiation therapy, but it usually improves after radiation therapy is finished. It can take several months or years for dry mouth to improve. In some cases, it may be a permanent side effect of treatment.

Having a dry mouth for a long time can cause problems with your teeth or gums. It's important that you see your dentist on a regular basis so that you can maintain your oral health.

Find out more about dry mouth.

Frey syndrome

Frey syndrome is a long-term side effect of surgery to remove a parotid gland. It’s also known as gustatory sweating or auriculotemporal syndrome.

Frey syndrome happens when nerves cut during surgery connect to the sweat glands in the skin while healing. Symptoms include flushing or sweating on one side of the face when eating. Most people don’t find this a problem, but some people may have a lot of flushing and sweating that they find embarrassing. People who have surgery to a wider or deeper area around a parotid gland have a higher risk of developing more severe symptoms.

Frey syndrome is diagnosed by putting iodine and corn starch on the face and then eating. The affected areas show up as dark wet spots where the skin sweats.

During surgery to the parotid gland, doctors do their best to rebuild the nerves to lower your risk of Frey syndrome. If it develops, treatment may include injections with botulinum toxin A (Botox).

Questions about supportive care

To make decisions that are right for you, ask your healthcare team questions to ask about supportive care.

Expert review and references

  • National Cancer Institute. Oral Complications of Chemotherapy and Head/Neck Radiation (PDQ®): Health Professional Version. Bethesda: National Cancer Institute; 2016.
  • American Cancer Society. Living as a salivary gland cancer survivor. 2017.
  • Macmillan Cancer Support. Salivary gland cancer. 2017.
  • National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD). Frey Syndrome. 2017.

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

We do our best to make sure that the information we provide is accurate and reliable but cannot guarantee that it is error-free or complete.

The Canadian Cancer Society is not responsible for the quality of the information or services provided by other organizations and mentioned on, nor do we endorse any service, product, treatment or therapy.

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