What is salivary gland cancer?

Salivary gland cancer starts in the cells of the salivary glands. A cancerous (malignant) tumour is a group of cancer cells that can grow into nearby tissue and destroy it. The tumour can also spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body.

Diagram of the salivary glands
Diagram of the salivary glands

The salivary glands are found in the head and neck. They make and release a fluid called saliva. Cells in the salivary glands sometimes change and no longer grow or behave normally. These changes may lead to non-cancerous (benign) tumours such as pleomorphic adenoma and Warthin tumour. But in some cases, changes to cells in the salivary glands can cause cancer. The most common salivary gland cancer is mucoepidermoid carcinoma (MEC), which usually develops in a parotid gland. The second most common salivary gland cancer is adenoid cystic carcinoma, which usually develops in a minor salivary gland. Many types of rare types of salivary gland cancer can also develop. These include different types of carcinoma, adenocarcinoma and lymphoma.

Expert review and references

  • American Cancer Society. Salivary Gland Cancer. American Cancer Society; 2014: http://www.cancer.org/cancer/salivaryglandcancer/index.
  • Bar-Ad V, Tuluc M, Cognetti D & Axelrod R . Uncommon tumors of the oral cavity and adjacent structures. Raghavan D, Blanke CD, Honson DH, et al. (eds.). Textbook of Uncommon Cancer. 4th ed. Wiley Blackwell; 2012: 6:pp. 97-117.
  • Mendenhall WM, Werning JW and Pfister DG . Treatment of head and neck cancer. DeVita VT Jr, Lawrence TS, & Rosenberg SA. Cancer: Principles & Practice of Oncology. 9th ed. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2011: 72:729-80.

The salivary glands

Salivary gland cancer starts in the cells of a salivary gland. Learn about symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and risks in our guide to salivary gland cancer.

Cancerous tumours of the salivary glands

Mucoepidermoid carcinoma is the most common type of salivary gland cancer. Learn about the different types of salivary gland cancerous tumours.

Non-cancerous tumours of the salivary gland

Non-cancerous tumours of the salivary glands include pleomorphic adenoma and Warthin tumour. Learn about diagnosing and treating benign salivary tumours.